On creative DNA
How to begin

Rituals of beginning

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Here are more wise words on the practice of art from The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp:

"A lot of habitually creative people have preparation rituals linked to linked to the setting in which they choose to start their day. By putting themselves into that environment, they start their creative day. The composer Igor Stravinsky did the same thing every morning when he entered his studio to work: He sat at the piano and played a Bach fugue. Perhaps he needed the ritual to feel like a musician, or the playing somehow connected him to musical notes, his vocabulary. Perhaps he was honoring his hero, Bach, and seeking his blessing for the day. Perhaps it was nothing more than a simple method to get his fingers moving, his motor running, his mind thinking music. But repeating the routine each day in the studio induced some click that got him started.

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"I know a chef who begins each day in the meticulously tended urban garden that dominates the tiny terrace of his Brooklyn home. He is obsessed with fresh ingredients, particularly herbs, spices, and flowers. Spending the first minutes of the day among his plants is his ideal creative environment for thinking about new flavor combinations and dishes. He putters about, feeling connected to nature, and this gets him going. Once he picks a vegetable or herb, he can't sit there. He has to head off to the restaurant and start cooking.

"A painter friend I know can't do anything in her studio without propulsive music pounding out of the speakers. Turning it on turns on a switch inside her. The beat gets into a groove. It's the metronome for her creative life.

"A writer friend can only write outside. He can't stand the thought of being chained indoors to his word processor while a 'great day' is unfolding outside. He fears he's missing something stirring in the air. So he lives in Southern California and carries his coffee mug out to work in the warmth of an open porch in his back yard. Mystically, he now believes he is missing nothing.

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"In the end, there is no one ideal condition for creativity. What works for one person is useless for another. The only criterion is this: Make it easy on yourself. Find a working environment where the prospect of wrestling with your muse doesn't scare you, doesn't shut you down. It should make you want to be there, and once you find it, stick with it. To get the creative habit, you need a working environment that's habit-forming.

"All preferred working states, no matter how eccentric, have one thing in common: When you enter them, they impel you to get started."

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My own morning ritual is to take a walk in the woods behind the studio with Tilly, and then to sit among the trees, by the leat, or up on the hill, with a thermos of coffee, a pen and a journal for scribbling notes, sketches and early-morning ideas ... or else, on those days when I need a lift, with a volume of good poetry instead, which never fails to kickstart my imagination and reignite my love of language.

Tilly sits or prowls nearby until it's time to head home to the studio. Back at my desk, I start the work day by lighting a candle or burning white sage. It's a ritual act of muse-summoning; an offering to the Ancestors (all those previous generations of mythic artists whose footsteps I humbly follow in); and a tangible signal that the workday has begun.

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What rituals do you use to start your workday, or to help you cross over from the everyday world into the time-bending realm of creativity? This is a discussion I keep returning to here, as each season brings new work and health challenges, and as I strive to use my time and energy (my spoons) as wisely as I can.  Have your own rituals altered over the years? Did you need to make new ones during the pandemic? Or, perhaps, are you one of those contrary souls for whom the very idea of a ritual or routine is anathema?

What helps, what hinders, when you're at your desk or in your studio, and it's time to begin?

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Words: The passages above and tucked into the picture captions are from The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp (Simon & Schuster, 2003); all rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: This is a favourite stopping place in the woods, a nest of green on a crumbling stone wall -- the wall is so old that a whole ecosystem of trees has grown on the top. The wall divides a woodland of oak and pine from the slope of the open hill beyond. It's an in-between place...which folklore reminds us is where magic can be found.

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