Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Creative Autobiography

The conditions were so limited that, as Samuel Johnson said about the prospect of being hanged, they concentrated the mind wonderfully.
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

Hi! I am involved in something at work called Leadership Academy. My little group goes to a lot of lectures and learns from really smart people, and we propose a couple of ideas for a grant, and we decide on one and we write a request for money to better our library.

One of the nicest things about this opportunity is that I am asked to stretch myself personally as well as professionally. We were asked to select reading material that supports our own outcomes: what we wish to learn and gain from the experience.

Of course I choose a book written by a dancer/choreographer: The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp. I can relate well to such a brain, having spent a lot of my life in the same setting: large room surrounded by mirrors in which I sweat, jump around, cry, and soar.

It so often happens that we pick up one challenge only to find it filled with a dozen others. Twyla refuses to merely be read; she pushes, she pulls, she's relentless! So here are some probing questions I take directly from her book. By all means, take the Creative Autobiography and let me know about it: its answers are revealing. Here's mine.

My Creative Autobiography

1. What is the first creative moment you remember?

In the third grade I recieved an assignment to create a poem in the shape of the subject it described. I remember knowing I could do it, and do it well. I created a beautifully crafted poem in the shape of a mouse's foot about my pet mouse, Harriet. I called it "A Mouse's Feet." It was all about the freedom of her movement, the joy I found in watching her. I experienced for the first time that sense of euphoria when you are given a task and the creativity of it takes you out of yourself, and something new and original results.

2. Was anyone there to witness or appreciate it?

Um, yes. My teacher called me to her desk and interrogated me about where I copied the poem from. I protested my innocence, and she submitted it to a contest for children writers.

3. What is the best idea you've ever had?

Probably to pursue what really interested me, instead of what I thought would be acceptable to other people.

4. What made it great in your mind?

It was daring, unpredictable, full of danger.

5. What is the dumbest idea?

I've had a lot. Probably to follow the Zone diet instead of what works for my body.

6. What made it stupid?

Well, here I was taking advice from a complete male stranger who knew nothing about my body. I decided to listen to what my body was telling me after that.

7. Can you connect the dots that led to this idea?

I think she means the best idea. I think a lot of it was luck. I was exposed to a lot of cultures, music, forms of dance, all chock full of ideas and concepts. It made it easier to experiment. But when I was young, if I saw an audition, I went to it, and eventually I got picked.

8. What is your creative ambition?

I love to combine rock or alternative music with more classical forms of dance.

9. What are the obstacles to this ambition?

There's not really an audience for it; it is unconventional.

10. What are the vital steps to achieving this ambition?

Probably forming my own dance troupe some day. Finding a source of funds and an audience.

11. How do you begin your day?

I like to write and read in the mornings because my body is still waking up, but my mind is fresh.

12. What are your habits? What patterns do you repeat?

I am always experimenting with new methods, so I don't have too many habits. It's a very unsettled way to live, but eventually I'm sure I'll find some habits that I adore. Some things I play with are improvisational dance, balancing new reading material with old, and using personal collages to stimulate my mind.

13. Describe your first successful creative act.

Ah, yes. BYU, 1998. Fall semester. I was a burnt out double major, and my grades were suffering. On the one hand I studied human psychology, on the other, all forms of dance, in addition to performing in one of the most strenuous dance troups on the campus. I had two modern dance teachers, a man and a woman, who shared a class. They pounded on the drums, they picked on me in class. They called me into their office and pulled my ponytail into the air and poked me in the ribs until my posture fit their standards. Despite their feedback and encouragement, I had missed several assignments and struggled to maintain a C-. Our final presentation was coming up, and I seriously needed to deliver.

It was a quiet afternoon in my apartment, rare because I had 3 roommates, and I started pulling out all my music. I pulled out a tape of piano music, and I remember feeling that the music was choosing me. When I heard "Merry Go Round", I knew I had to dance to it. I choreographed all afternoon, stringing together bits and pieces I had learned in class and filling in with my own movements to give it life and meaning. The "spine" of my dance was a menagerie of animals I transformed in and out of, each with contrasting qualities, like a hippo next to a swan. It worked extremely well with the music, and the dance came to life.

When I performed, I knew my grade hung in the balance, and it was before a large group of students, but all I wanted was to dance, to tell the story, to share it with others. It was one of those rare moments in life when everything came together, and at the last minute, too. The music started, and it swept me away. I performed flawlessly, at a level I have rarely experienced before or since. My teachers called me that night at home, ecstatic at my success, thrilled to tell me my grade was several levels higher, and in general completely shocked at my comeback. It was a great night.

14. Describe your second successful creative act.

I took the same dance and put it to "Bleed America" by Jimmy Eat World, changing it where appropriate, and entertained myself by performing the darker, wilder side of my dance in my parent's abandoned barn.

15. Compare them.

"Merry Go Round" is about innocence and its innate beauty; "Bleed America" is about taking turmoil and turning it into something lovely.

16. What are your attitudes toward: money, power, praise, rivals, work, play?

Money: ebbs and flows, Power: needs a channel, Praise: be generous with, Rivals: steal from, Work: a great gift, Play: an even better gift.

17. Which artists do you admire most?

I admire writers and dancers.

18. Why are they your role models?

So much of their work is done in the dark, with little recognition and a lot of faith that their creations are beautiful and matter.

19. What do you and your role models have in common?

I love doing things for the joy of it; put me in the back of a company dancing Swan Lake, where no one can see me, and it doesn't matter, as long as I get to dance.

20. Does anyone in your life regularly inspire you?

Poets. I read whatever poetry comes my way.

21. Who is your muse?

Musicians. I am particularly into The Kooks at this time, Mozart always delivers, and Harry Potter theme music is stimulating as well.

22. Define muse.

You always produce good work when your muse is near.

23. When confronted with superior intelligence or talent, how do you respond?

When I am wise, I adapt and learn from it.

24. When faced with stupidity, hostility, intransigence, laziness, or indifference in others, how do you respond?

Try to see things from their perspective; I don't think many people are naturally lazy or indifferent, I think they need the right stimulation.

25. When faced with impending success or the threat of failure, how do you respond?

Success: Try to remember my "spine", my original north star, and not get distracted; Failure: Lots of self affirmations and take care of myself to the best of my ability.

26. When you work, do you love the process or the result?

I love getting lost in the process. Then when I look back at the results, I know I was collaborating with something bigger than myself.

27. At what moments do you feel your reach exceeds your grasp?

Pretty much all the time.

28. What is your ideal creative activity?

When I was about ten, my best friend Tammie and I put on outdoor productions for the neighborhood of our wonderful choreographic works. We did our own costumes, picked the music, and something about dancing outside has always been marvelous to me. We had such a great time. So maybe an adult version of that.

29. What is your greatest fear?

That I won't be able to listen to what others and the world around me is trying to tell me; that I'll lose my intuition.

30. What is the likelihood of either of the answers to the previous two questions happening?

You never know, but I need to get dancing if I want the first to happen; the second I feel is a daily battle.

31. Which of your answers would you most like to change?

Probably #12. Sometimes I want just a little less ambiguity and a little more clarity. I have learned that I have to earn it; clarity isn't easy to find.

32. What is your idea of mastery?

Mastery I think is the law of effortless creation; when an artist is trying too hard, it shows up in the work. Effortless creation is watching my ballet teacher do a triple pirouette as if she is completely supported on an invisible axis; she has worked hard to establish that axis, but the work doesn't show in the least.

33. What is your greatest dream?

Once I read about a man who opened a school in the ghetto with the best of everything. The best food, the best linens, fountains, beauty, and the best resources. Because the children were given this lovely place, they started to believe in themselves. I dream about opening a dance school in the same manner if I ever had the resources. Let's face it, most dance studios are about utility, and I think this robs a lot of what inspires dance to be glamorous and inviting. Every other artistic industry recognizes this.

I picture marble floors in the hallways, chandeliers, velvet curtains, so that every little girl who danced there felt like a princess.

More quotes from Twyla:

There in a nutshell is the essence of creativity: there are a number of possibilities, but only one solution looks inevitable.

Questioning what's gone unquestioned gets the brain humming.

Creativity is an act of defiance.

Too much planning implies you've got it all under control. That's boring, unrealistic, and dangerous. It lulls you into a compacency that removes one the artist's most valuable conditions: being pissed.

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