make something terrible today [the creative habit]

March 24, 2009

This post is part of an ongoing series of reflections on my reading of The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp.

The Creative Habit begins with a chapter called “I Walk Into a White Room”. Tharp uses this image to describe the stark nothing from which every new project begins. This feels to me like a place of both anxiety and possibility, and I’m glad to see I’m not alone. Tharp describes it this way:

this empty room symbolizes something profound, mysterious, and terrifying: the task of starting with nothing and working your way toward creating something whole and beautiful and satisfying. … Some people find this moment — the moment before creativity begins — so painful that they simply cannot deal with it. (pg. 5)

What causes this terror and fear varies with every project for me, but the one constant is it’s presence. Yet the very thing that is terrifying about starting is also what makes it beautiful. You can’t make something that is already there…you have to start with nothing.It is the courage to move into this unknown expression that makes the creative process worth the effort.

Later in the book, in the exercises for chapter 5, Tharp describes a scholar friend who always had difficulty writing. He never knew what the beginning should be, but “he figured out that the paper’s beginning was not the same as beginning to write. So he just started writing about an important point in the paper and trusted that he’d find the beginning eventually.”

The first thing that I have to let go of to get started is the need to know what the final result will look like. I have to be willing to make something terrible as a means to make something worth sharing. The current design for this website looks nothing like the first concept, but I never would have gotten to this point if I hadn’t made a handful of layouts worth of the trash heap. I was halfway through grad school before I figured out that if I began a paper by just rambling out some thoughts with no concern for formatting, the content would begin to emerge within the muck.

So go ahead and walk into that empty room and see what happens. Starting with something terrible is better than not making anything at all.

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