During my vacation, I read The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life, by Twyla Tharp.
The book is meant to apply to all art forms, all creative endeavors, but I found Ms. Tharp's dance stories and movement examples especially invigorating. They brought back memories of standing in the studio, at ballet class or at rehearsal, choreographing, teaching phrases to the generous women who danced with me--and it reminded me of the time I auditioned for Twyla Tharp (longer story, there).
In the section on scratching for new ideas, Ms. Tharp advises to always scratch in new places for new ideas. At first, I thought that sometimes I like to revisit my tried-and-true sources. For example, I've learned that reading Lynda Hull's poems lights a creative fire for me. Then I realized that it's the difference between a new idea and a rejuvenation. One is the spark for new work, and the other is the inspiration that helps me start.
I liked Ms. Tharp's advice in "Accidents Will Happen" to pick a fight--to create your own accidents. This is an intentional way to keep you on your edges, an idea that is again explored in the chapter on skills. I'll admit that this chapter flummoxed me some--on the one hand, you need your skills at their peak, the very best, but you also need inexperience, so that you're forced in new directions. That all makes sense--you want skills, and you want new directions--but I found the juxtaposition unsettling. Maybe that's the point. (I liked the stories about standing behind the best dancers and copying their moves, and the general advice to copy the experts--but honestly, I don't know if I want to copy anyone right now. I'm 51, and I want to learn from the best, but I don't want to copy. Talk to me in a week or a month.)
In that same chapter, Ms. Tharp suggests that readers take an inventory of their skills. That sounds like a good plan (haven't done it yet--but I was on vacation). She also provides a 20-questions exercise that could also fit in the section on "spine."
Then I suffered a crisis of confidence. It was in the Waipio valley, and I thought, "Maybe I'm not a writer! I'm not looking at every plant and transcribing it into a poem. I'm not seeing so many shapes in the clouds." And if I'm not a writer, what? I've already ruled out visual artist, musician, and dancer and choreographer. Then I convinced myself that this is ridiculous, and I reminded myself that I've spent years learning to let go of the constant need to look at every experience as a poem and to live in that experience as completely as possible instead, to trust that the experience will return when I need it.
I'm still working through the idea of spine. On the one hand, it makes perfect sense: Pick a concept and make sure that all your efforts fit with it. On that other hand, I've heard that poems work best if you can not know what they're about for as long as possible--and I believe that. So although Ms. Tharp says, "Once you accept the power of spine in the creative act, you will become much more efficient in your creativity," I don't think that for me it's about efficiency. I do think that spine is a critical tool in revising and even more so in choosing poems for a manuscript.
I spent the rest of the week trying to figure out what the spine was for the poems I'm working on right now. Still working…
The book includes much more. I recommend it, and I'm confident that I'll return to it.