Twyla’s habits


Dear Artist,

One of the benefits of travel, particularly if you are staying as someone’s guest, is that you get to look over their libraries. Further, you find out what they are reading right now. Here, The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp has caught some eyes. Funny to be reading a New York choreographer while hanging out in Tuscany. I have a hard time putting down books by achievers. They are often clear and practical, and speak with first-hand authority.

Moujik (2010) iPad drawing printed on paper, Edition of 25 94 x 71.1 cm by David Hockney (b.1937)

Moujik (2010)
iPad drawing printed on paper, Edition of 25
94 x 71.1 cm
by David Hockney (b.1937)

“Being creative,” says Twyla, “is an everyday thing, a job with its own routines. That’s why writers, for example, like to establish a routine. The most productive ones get started early in the morning when phones aren’t ringing and their minds are rested and not polluted by other people’s words. They might set a goal–1500 words or stay at their desk until noon–but the real secret is that they do this every day. After a while it becomes a habit.”

“This is no different for a painter finding his way to the easel or a medical researcher returning to the laboratory. The routine is as much a part of the creative process as the lightning bolt of inspiration (perhaps more). And it is available to everyone. If creativity is a habit, then the best creativity is the result of good work habits. They are the nuts and bolts of dreaming.”

In my part-time job as coach and mentor, I frequently find myself wishing for small boxes of habits, like boxes of dominoes or tarot cards, to present as gifts to those requesting. Twyla’s habit-based creative progress is right on. There are, of course, a few rare folks who have lots of good habits, whose output still remains inadequate. To these, the only possible direction is the continued refinement and application of habits. For those with potential talent, unrealized progress and a dose of desire, habits still remain the key. It’s up to the individual to define those habits and put them into action.

Will It Ever Work (2011) iPad drawing printed on paper, Edition of 25 94 x 71.1 cm by David Hockney

Will It Ever Work (2011)
iPad drawing printed on paper, Edition of 25
94 x 71.1 cm
by David Hockney

Habits lead the way to personal processes. The idea is to fall in love with your processes. When you do fall in love, you’ll know it. Other doors closing can speed the joy. Twyla’s other lesson: “Concentrate: you can’t have it all.”

Best regards,


PS: “Discipline morphs into habit.” (Twyla Tharp)

Esoterica: They say that learning is finding out what you already know. We pack up our baggage, get onto aircraft, drift to another zone. Like snails we carry our shell. We look out at the new with limited feelers and sullied eyesight. In our haste to squeeze out and begin again we discover a thought: “Art,” says Twyla, “is the only way to run away without leaving home.”

This letter was originally published as “Twyla’s habits” on July 22, 2008.

My Shirt and Trousers (2010) iPad drawing printed on paper, Edition of 25 94 x 71.1 cm David HockneyThe Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Paint something every day.” (David Hockney)

“Watch your habits, they determine your character.” (Winston Churchill)




  1. This letter has certainly hit home with me this week. I have found there are myriad people, necessaries and problems that like to interfere with my creative time, all of them jumping and clawing at my feet for attention like undisciplined poodles. I am finally learning the skill of saying, “No.” And, that saying it doesn’t make me uncaring and insensitive. One does have to decipher when things can be put off and still handled appropriately. In the process, I am finding the ability to lock down the time for developing my God-given talent that He expects me to multiply. I am not yet perfect at it, the habit is not yet solid; so continued discipline and focus are indeed the keys. Thank you for this needed encouragement!

  2. I have contemplated this issue for many years. The discipline (or lack of) getting to the “easel.” My parents were both “nose to the grindstone” hard workers. Dad was for many years a workaholic. If it was one attribute he handed down, it was how to work…hard! Anything job done was worth doing right and well. Stay long hours, give more than you’re paid for. Under promise, over deliver. I have spent most of my adult years professionally, drafting. As the economy ebbed and flowed, so did I between only (2) employers. A few years there was plenty of overtime, 10-20 hours a week. Which I happily did for the cash. But when it came to creating, there was nothing. I thought about how I worked so hard for others and not so much for myself, for the creative bent? Why did I not apply this same rigorous, disciplined “work” ethic to my creative side/work?

    In my humble opinion, it started (or didn’t start) from a mental attitude that somehow “art” – work…was not valued the same. It was something to be done in ‘spare’ time. If it didn’t provide an immediate ROI, it was not worthy of the effort. For a creative, such thinking/attitude can be deadly. To the soul, spirit, life itself. I determined I would have to elevate creating to the same level of importance (or more) than anything else I would do in life.
    5 years ago, being a delineator, I decided to put a pencil and pad next to my bed. And before I even got out of bed, I would draw. 1, 2…sometimes 20 sketches. Everyday! It was a wonderful experience. And when I am drafting I keep a spare piece of paper nearby to scribble. (I recently read an article of how changing one’s focus for even a few seconds can help with the workflow mentally.) And now if I need inspiration I have a pile of pads to refer to. And I have enough sketches I could paint and sculpt for years to come.

    Thank you Sara for sharing this article to bring to focus how important and life-giving the creative act can be!

  3. Oscar Wilde once said, “failure is the development of habit”. (perhaps not an exact quote??)I did not understand that when I read it 35 years ago, and it bothered me. I didn’t get it, but I do now. And there is no end of research that shows how doing even fimiliar things in new ways greatly improves “brain performance” and makes creative insight more probable. Newness, not auto pilot, makes the brain alert. The brain has been described as an anticipation machine, wired to spot the unexpected. Auto pilot, compulsive behaviors, “good” habits, lull. Reassure. Sooth. Perhaps this is slightly off the point. It is good to brush your teeth before bed time, good to pay your bills when they are due and send thank you notes for gifts and kindnesses, good to remember to water your plants, feed the child, service the car….but go to the easel? If you must, because it is your “way”, then at least try to take a different route some times.

  4. Robert is absolutely right as ever.

    Using David Hockney’s work to illustrate his point is especially appropriate as Hockney has worked his socks off all his life. As a student at the Royal College of Art he had a sign pinned up on his bedroom wall so that it was the first thing he saw every morning:

    ‘Get up and work now.’

  5. ” Other doors closing can speed the joy.”

    This short sentence slipped by me the first time I read this letter. Suddenly it is the most important in the entire entry!
    I have been blessed with other doors closing of late, doors which I did not want to close, holding out hope of someday “getting organized” and “getting around to it”. Maybe it’s a form of greed.
    But “…you can’t have it all.”

    Thanks Sara, for keeping these letters coming.

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