scratch when you don't itch [the creative habit]

May 18, 2009

This post is part of an ongoing series of reflections on The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp. It is a guest post by my friend Blaine Hogan. Blaine is an actor, a visual artist. He’s great at making stuff, and he does it for a living as an Experience Engineer at Willow Creek Community Church. Personally, I appreciate his hunger to be a student of the creative process, and desire to be present to what is happening around him. You’ll get to hear more from Blaine in his upcoming Creative Practices interview.

How do you get your ideas?

That was the question I posed a few weeks ago on my Facebook and Twitter pages. The answers that came in were vastly different yet surprisingly similar.

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Walking on the beach, reading a book, flirting.
  • Long hot showers (this was the most popular answer actually).
  • Observing what’s around me trying to make odd connections between things as disparate as management theory, and how a grasshopper’s wings work.
  • Cliff-hanging.
  • Solitude.
  • Stealing.
  • Doing the dishes.
  • Reading magazines written for people different than me.
  • Random photographs, half-lit rooms, conversations with strangers.

Twyla Tharp puts most of these actions in a category she calls “scratching.” According to her, scratching is an act best done as a routine designed to gather and collect small ideas to be used at a later date. Personally it is one of my favorite things to do. Whether it is in my iTunes library or a museum, I love wandering, looking, hunting, and gathering. Here’s how it looks for me:

Because many of my ideas come from listening to music, I tend to start there. I’ll put about 5 or 6 new or old songs on repeat, crank the volume, and with pencil in hand, wait to see what comes. When I do this I’m not necessarily looking for big ideas (something Twyla really stresses) I’m just cataloging the things I see or how I feel. As thoughts come I write them down in my little Field Notes notebook. As songs inspire I put them in “mood playlists” or “scratching piles” in my iTunes library. I do this at least once or twice a week.

As you can see, it works many different ways for many different people. For me it might be listening to music, for you it might be simply stopping, sitting, and giving your head some space to be free for a spell. There is no right or wrong way to do it. And yet if you want ideas and you want to make things, it simply must be done.

Scratching can look like borrowing or appropriating, but it’s an essential part of creativity. It’s primal, and very private. It’s a way of saying to the gods, “Oh, don’t mind me, I’ll just wander around in these back hallways…” and then grabbing that piece of fire and running like hell.

While this wandering may seem like little more than daydreaming, I agree with Twyla that scratching is absolutely necessary if you are hoping to create. In fact, I am of the opinion that these small, routine moments of seemingly meaningless gathering when no one is looking has the potential to save you when everyone has their eyes on you.

For example, I recently opened my mouth in a creative meeting and shared a big idea. It required flexing muscles that I hadn’t used in a number of years and a lot of work I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to do. A few weeks later I was told the team had decided to go with my idea over a handful of others. Gulp. What had I done? I was given a due date and with that I was out the door.

Weeks later. Nothing came. And I mean nothing. I simply could not bring myself to sit down and attempt another draft of my idea, which now had to be made into something real. Every time I tried to write, the idea overwhelmed me. I didn’t know where to begin. I had a big idea but nothing to support it. Or so I thought…

The morning of the day I had to present my new draft (which I hadn’t written) I sat down and forced myself to write. I forgot about the bigness of the idea and instead looked for something manageable. I decided to start with a scratching pile in my iTunes that I had made a few months ago. Slowly I played one song after another, remembering the feelings and visions I had when I first heard them. As I let these small scratches wash over me the big idea began to take shape. The disconnected ideas began to connect all the little dots that made up the huge dots of my current project. Before I knew it I knew where I was headed.


I had never been more thankful for my scratching pile than I was in that moment. It saved me. I could have never known that when I tagged those songs 7 months ago they would be used for this project. In fact, I shudder to think where I would be right now had I not been diligent enough to catalog those tiny little thoughts.

So, scratch when you don’t itch. Make it part of your weekly routine and stick to it. Then capture and catalog whatever comes.

I promise that consistent scratching will connect you to places you cannot yet see. And who doesn’t want that?

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