The Backbone Of Creativity

The Creative Spine

Drawing courtesy of Amy Burvall

“It happens to everyone. You’ll find yourself pacing your particular white room, asking yourself, What am I trying to say? That is the moment when you will embrace, with gratitude, the notion of a spine.”  -Twyla Tharp The Creative Habit: Learn It And Use It For Life

In some ways, we still see creativity as a bit vague and ambiguous. We remain a bit hazy and unclear on exactly what it is and where it comes from, which can allow us to buy into the many myths and untruths that surround it. And for some, these myths and untruths can become deeply internalized, often causing an abundance of avoidance behaviors.

Especially in education.

Too often we can see creativity as a disruptive force. Especially if we buy into those myths and untruths that surround it. Which has allowed us to create this internal belief that creativity is about wild abandon and complete freedom. We engage this notion that creativity lacks any restraints or limits. Which produces pictures of chaos and disorder dancing through our heads when we invoke images of creative and innovative spaces and environments.

Notions we persist in entertaining in the face of current research.

What we’ve come to realize and understand is that creativity is not engaged at it’s highest level under conditions of unrestricted and unlimited freedom. These environments actually have a tendency to hinder and depress our idea output. Rather, it has been shown that our creative faculties are better induced when some sort of constriction or constraint is introduced into the equation. It actually evokes more creative and innovative thinking. Which is far from the chaos, disorder and messiness of unrestrained freedom that we often associate with creative and innovative environments.

In all actuality, when we study some of the most creative and innovative people and environments we are met with terms, such as; habits, routines, discipline, persistence, motivation, and focus.

Terms that we seldom associate with chaos and disorder (not to say that all creative and innovative people, spaces and environments include these attributes). But what we’ve come to realize is that much of our creative and innovative output is born out of disciplined persistence and the ‘creative habits’ that we incorporate into our lives and work on a daily basis. That creativity often gains a greater flow when we incorporate anchors (habits) and parameters (constraints) to the process.

Which stands in stark contrast to those many myths we still rationalize and believe.  

However, it is those anchors, or what Twyla Tharp refers to as the ‘spine’, that can keep us grounded in the midst of the creative process. As she shares, “I believe that every work of art needs a spine—an underlying theme, a motive for coming into existence. It doesn’t have to be apparent to the audience. But you need it at the start of the creative process to guide you and keep you going.”

It is that idea, that notion of the ‘spine’ that keeps us focused during our creative and innovative work. It keeps us from wandering aimlessly. It allows us to keep an eye on our outcome, especially when the process itself has a tendency to overwhelm. It keeps us persistent and disciplined. It keeps us from losing our way towards what we were originally trying to capture with our idea or thinking.

Or as Tharp shares in the Creative Habit, “The idea is the toehold that gets you started.  The spine is the statement you make to yourself outlining your intentions for the work.” And while creativity and innovation is neither linear nor predictable, if we lack an anchor, some intention towards the work, we can easily find ourselves not only wandering aimlessly, but losing complete focus of intention towards why we were engaging the idea in the first place. As she adds, “It lets me know when I am dawdling or digressing or wasting time. It reminds me that everything I add is either on message or off. Most of all, it lets me know when I’m done.”

Creative work can be engaging and fulfilling, so much so, we can get lost in the work and lose the intention of what we are trying to do, what we are trying to say, what we are trying to accomplish. When our work lacks that ‘spine’, that anchor Tharp refers too, we can struggle to know when to stop, to know when it’s time to ship. For in the end, while creative and innovative work can be deeply satisfying and enjoyable, we are engaging for a reason, for an outcome.

“Once you accept the power of spine in the creative act, you will become much more efficient in your creativity. You will still get lost on occasion, but having a spine will anchor you. When you lose your way, it will show you the way home. It will remind you that this is what you have set out to do, this is the story you’re trying to tell, this is the effect you’re trying to achieve.”  -Twyla Tharp The Creative Habit

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