11 Tips for Freelancers from Twyla Tharp’s the Creative Habit


Photo credit: Christine Bougie.

Photo credit: Christine Bougie.

“The white-hot pitch of creativity is only useful to those who know what to do with it,” says Twyla Tharp in her best-selling book, The Creative Habit. In it, she shares skills learned as a lifelong accomplished choreographer that help make creativity work better for you. It’s filled with ideas and exercises made to enhance your craft, whatever that may be, with better tools—both mental and physical. While it does focus on those involved in “the arts,” there is plenty of wisdom for the modern multi-tasking creative. Here, some of her best pieces of advice put through the lens of a freelancer who must constantly juggle craft with commerce.

1. Discipline is everything.

“You don’t get into the mood to create – it’s discipline.” The ability to work rigorously and consistently is necessary to transform a spark into a deeply valuable skill. As a freelancer, it’s easy to flit around and get swept up in things. Learning to be consistent, to be hard on yourself, to make timelines (and stick to them) will make you more efficient, productive, and excellent.

2. Be prepared.

Tharp says to “find your pencil,” or the thing you create with, arguing that carrying around a pencil (or paintbrush, or camera, or whatever your tool may be) every day makes you ready to use it when the time comes. Carry yourself with a sense of openness to ideas, so that when you’re struck with inspiration (or called on to do a new project), you’re already warmed up to work. How? Check in with yourself. Make sure your head is on straight. That’s tough to do when you have a million things happening at once. But a clear mind always works better for you.

3. Start working. Now.

“Know the difference between a work’s beginning and beginning to work,” Tharp says. The beginning is always daunting—but don’t let it stop you from working. Just start somewhere, anywhere, and the beginning will eventually take shape. Like putting together a presentation: You know what’s going to be in it, but you don’t always know what’s on the table of contents until you’ve made the content.

4. Distance is important.

“When I’ve learned all I can at the core of a piece, I pull back and…become a surrogate for the audience. I see the work the way they will see it. New, fresh, objectively.” As a freelancer, it’s easy to get caught up in the nitty-gritty—it’s inevitable if you’re passionate about your work. Tharp reminds us to remain objective—while keeping nuances in mind: “Immerse yourself in the details of the work. Commit yourself to mastering every aspect. At the same time, step back to see if the work scans, if it’s intelligible to an unwashed audience. Don’t get so involved that you lose what you’re trying to say. This was the yin and yang of my work life: Dive in. Step back. Dive in. Step back.”

5. Embrace solitude.

“Alone is a fact, a condition when no one else is around. Lonely is how you feel about that.” As a freelancer, you will often find yourself working alone. It’s an “unavoidable part of creativity.” But being alone doesn’t have to be scary. Tharp says to use it to your advantage. Let your mind wander, teasing thoughts from the unconscious. Soon, an idea will spark—latch on to it, mull it over. Before you know it, you’re no longer alone, “your goal, your idea is your companion.”

6. Pick a fight.

With the process, the idea, the routine. Question the established wisdoms, says Tharp. Are they right? You’ll then prepare yourself for the fights outside yourself—with a client or collaborator—and be prepared to either work through it or put your foot down. If nothing else, it helps to establish “a warrior’s frame of mind”—something every person who needs to defend their work can use.

7. Routine breeds ruts.

Usually, at least. Tharp LOVES routines—it’s what makes creativity a habit, she says. But, they can get you stuck, too. A rut is a result of doing the same thing the same way over and over and expecting it to always work (which is fairly similar to the definition of insanity…) when in fact the method may be worn out. Learn to see that, admit it, and get out of it.

8. Put down your favorite weapon.

“Never have a favorite weapon,” Tharp says and if you do, put it down. Challenge yourself. “Our ability to grow is directly proportional to an ability to entertain the uncomfortable,” says Tharp. A a freelancer, you may be called on to do projects that challenge you to work outside of your comfort zone. Use this as an opportunity for growth, but don’t be afraid to call on experts who might be able to provide guidance. 

9. Memory is your untapped resource.

Memory is the mother of muse. She urges you to review your old work. Not the big time stuff on your website that you love, but the little things tucked away you forgot you did—like brainstorming notes. You’ll be surprised at what came out of your head—and remember that you can always find more creative juice in you somewhere.

10. Think in boxes.

Tharp starts a “box” at the beginning of every project: A file folder box in which she puts anything that inspired or helped create her dance. This is helpful for the less-organized folk. Put everything related to a project in one space; a folder on your drive, or a box in your office. Reference it to remind of the goal, the essence, and the inspirations. It also helps sort through everything so you have a sense of what you’ve done, and what’s left to do. An amazing quote sums it up: “When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s easy to forget that your objective was to drain the swamp.”

11. Scratch and cut.

Tharp calls ideating and inspiration-seeking “scratching”—like a chicken in the dust, searching for a juicy worm of the next project, bypassing rocks or things that aren’t of value. Keep at it, always, otherwise you’ll get stale. And be discerning with what you uncover: It’s not all gold. Recognizing which parts of your plan or idea are souring and letting them slide will allow you to move on unencumbered—that’s the “cut.” Know that sigh of relief when you cut something that wasn’t working? Channel that often. And learn to cut constantly.

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Disclaimer: General Assembly referred to their Bootcamps and Short Courses as “Immersive” and “Part-time” courses respectfully and you may see that reference in posts prior to 2023.