Twyla Tharp: Getting Things Done (with Boxes)

As I said in my last post, I’m generally suspicious of motivational speakers, self-help books, and so on. In fact, going near that section of the bookstore alone just gives me the willies.

Still, a year down the road, I’m glad I took a look at David Allen’s productivity phenomenon Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity even if I have reservations about the some of its jargon and, at times, (needless?) complexities.

Enter Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit (co-written with Mark Reiter).

I ran across Tharp’s book in the arts, not productivity, section of the bookstore. A good sign. (Certainly if you find yourself reading productivity book after productivity book you’re missing the point.) Browsed a few pages. Plunked down the cash for it and, upon taking it home, found that The Creative Habit is, yep, one of those books. Happily, it’s a little different, too.

For one thing, the book caters to artists, not paper-pushers. Sure, in some ways, work is work. But getting things done can be a lot harder when the “things” are ideas you’ve dreamt up entirely on your own. (I imagine this applies to programmers, too. Merlin, are you reading?)

Even more importantly, the writing is credible. Twyla Tharp is a bona fide giant in choreography. She’s had a long, successful career in a competitive field. For that reason alone, her ideas on being creative and productive in the arts carry some weight with me.

As Tharp states in the first few pages, her book’s basic premise is that “[i]n order to be creative you have to know how to prepare to be creative.” The rest of the book talks about how to make a ritual of your creativity, how to work through creative blocks, and how to get out of (and altogether avoid) ruts. I’m not going to summarize the book — it’s a good read, why should I? — but the whole thing is a substantial investigation into the process of creativity. Sure, it has some of that self-help anyone-can-do-it syrup, but I found that it was a digestible amount.

One thing that’s particularly interesting, and a little amusing, is that Tharp’s system for organizing her work is not so very different from that found in Getting Things Done.

David Allen’s notion of “Collect. Process. Organize. Review. Do.” is echoed in Tharp’s quoting of Stephen Kosslyn‘s notion of how you can act on ideas: “Generate. Retain. Inspect. Transform.”

If that sounds familiar, check this out:

Everyone has his or her own organizational system. Mine is a box, the kind you can buy at Office Depot for transferring files.

I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippins, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.

The box documents active research on every project….

There are separate boxes for everything I’ve ever done. If you want a glimpse into how I think and work, you could do worse than to start with my boxes.

The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don’t know where I’m going yet.

It also represents a commitment. The simple act of writing a project name on the box means I’ve started work.

The box makes me feel connected to a project. It is my soil. I feel this even when I’ve back-burnered a project: I may have put the box away on a shelf, but I know it’s there. The project name on the box in bold black lettering is a constant reminder that I had an idea once and may come back to it very soon.

Most important, though, the box means I never have to worry about forgetting. One of the biggest fears for a creative person is that some brilliant idea will get lost because you didn’t write it down and put it in a safe place. I don’t worry about that because I know where to find it. It’s all in the box….

They’re easy to buy, and they’re cheap….They’re one hundred percent functional; they do exactly what I want them to do: hold stuff. I can write on them to identify their contents… I can move them around… When one box fills up, I can easily unfold and construct another. And when I’m done with the box, I can ship it away out of sight, out of mind, so I can move on to the next project, the next box.

Easily acquited. Inexpensive. Perfectly functional. Portable. Identifiable. Disposable. Eternal enough.

Those are my criteria for the perfect storage system. And I’ve found the answer in a simple file box.

No “tickler files.” No “weekly review.” It’s even more simple. Boxes. Just boxes.

On top of all of this, The Creative Habit is worth reading because Twyla Tharp is a pretty good storyteller. She invites us into the process behind the creation of some of her biggest successes and failures, and she does so in hopes of helping us with our own creativity. As with Getting Things Done, I’m sure your mileage will vary, but you might give it a look.

One Response to “Twyla Tharp: Getting Things Done (with Boxes)”

  1. Dennis Thread Says:

    I too found Ms. Tharp’s book a refreshing look at the creative process.

    Since Ms. Tharp is known for being very strong willed, I thought her take on fear especially fascinating. There’s a variation on an old story that has been told about Ms. Tharp: “Did you hear? Twyla got into a a tussle with a locomotive yesterday afternoon. (beat) The locomotive lost.”

    In her book she talks about gathering up her fears, naming them, completely owning them — and then imagining those fears as they march off a cliff!

    May all of us be so fearless in our work.

    Dennis Thread