R. Shapiro photo


The Terrifying Moment Before Creation

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
July 2009

". . .that moment before the act of creation begins can be so terrifying that people run from it."

Picture famous choreographer/dancer, Twyla Tharpe walking into her white studio, facing the mirror, knowing that she has to create a dance program in L.A. The tickets have already been sold. The producers are counting on her, the dancers are counting on her creativity. Doesn’t your heart pound just thinking of it?

In The Creative Habit (Simon & Schuster, 2006), Twyla Tharpe writes about how this white room symbolizes the terror of starting with nothing and working your way toward something whole, beautiful, and satisfying.

Whether one is a painter or a writer or in any of the other arts, that moment before the act of creation begins can be so terrifying that people run from it. They get up and walk away. They do errands, cook, shop, do anything other than begin. And then the procrastination becomes paralyzing.

Tharpe believes that there are no natural born geniuses. Mozart’s father was a famous musician who taught him all he could at a very early age and exposed him to the work of others. Destiny is often shaped by a creative, dedicated parent.

Since most of us didn’t have such fortune, we have to develop “The Creative Habit.” To do that,Twyla insists, you have to have a ritual that you stick to.

Wake up at the same time everyday.

Perform a ritual to get you primed for creativity such as a workout or yoga practice by candlelight.

The sameness does something to flip the creative. switch in your brain. Igor Stravinsky woke up the same time everyday and played a Back fugue. Dancers wake up at the same time everyday and go to dance class at 10:00 a.m.

Tharpe knows a chef who attends to his garden each morning and a painter who plays explosive music as she paints which somehow unleashes her creativity, taking her away from thoughts that would prevent it from happening.

Work in the same place each day. Tharpe mentions a writer who couldn’t bear to be cooped up indoors. He moved to Southern California where he could work out on his terrace everyday with a mug of coffee.

When the terror comes, write a specific list of the things you are afraid of. Here’s mine: I read such great literature that mine never measures up. Someone has done it before and better. I have nothing to say. Someone will recognize that I’m writing about him/her and sue me. I can never get it on the page as startlingly as I feel it.

And then you need to face up to these fears and answer them.

To the fear that my stories can never match up to those I read in the New Yorker, (even the ones I don’t like), I remind myself of something I read in a New Age book. “In an expanding Universe there is room for many voices.”

To address the fear that someone has done it before, I read tales that Shakespeare based his plays on. I think of West Side Story as Romeo and Juliet; Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres King Lear. As Tharpe reminds us, “It’s all been done before.”

When I think of having nothing to say, I have to remember that everyone has something to say.

Tharpe suggests that if you have the fear that you’re hurting someone you’re writing about, picture that person standing up and applauding for you after they have heard or read what you’ve done about them.

My answer to not being able to match my concept with what actually appears on the page is to tell myself that I’m better off creating something imperfect than nothing at all.

If none of these arguments work for you, Tharpe suggests you think of Dostoyevsky”s The Demons: “I see my fears being cast into the bodies of wild boars and hogs, and I watch them rush to a cliff where they fall to their deaths.

Some people clean before they begin work. Tharpe thinks that what is most effective here is just moving the muscles.

An affirmation can help. Tharpe cites a businessman who precedes each business deal by staring the mysteriously cropped pyramid with the golden eye. “Annuit coeptis,” it says, which me ans “Providence has favored our undertakings.”

Cut out distractions: Don’t go to the movies unless it has to do with the project you are working on. Don’t stay on the telephone or (for her only, not others) don’t use background music. Hmmm, I wonder what she would say about me doing different kinds of writing projects simultaneously? I often am working on a novel, short story, and poem. It makes me feel as if I have irons in the fire and should one fail… But perhaps this also leads to distraction, not giving one project my all.

Build up your tolerance for solitude. Some people do this by fishing or going for long walks. You have to differentiate the feeling of being alone vs. loneliness.

Give yourself a week without limits. Don’t look at wristwatches, mirrors, newspapers, and she suggests, EVEN STOP SPEAKING!!! Without mirrors you will think more about the creative project you’re working on instead of how you look, the internals instead of the externals, and without speaking, you will have to listen to your inner voice.

Dive into your work, step back, and dive in again. It’s important to push away everything else so that you can immerse yourself in your work, but after you have your first draft, you need to step away from the work so that you can look at it with fresh eyes, scan it, see if the whole reads well, if the meaning is clear to others besides yourself. Sometimes that is the point to let others in.

Go out to observe. Soak up everything around you as material Nothing is unimportant. Look at a face and tell yourself a story about it. Look at landscape and try to think of the names of the colors in it specifically, such as the Prussian blue of a summer night sky.

Give yourself a different name to rid yourself of the smaller “you” identity. x cites Cassius Clay’s name change to Mohammed Ali as a great creative coup. It helped him throw off the shackles of slavery and create a worldwide image of himself.

Harness your memory. Actually commit to memory poems that have something to do with what you’re working on, or aspects of history. When I go to an arboretum, I study a flower and the name, then I pretend I have a camera, bring it to my eye, and even say, “Click.” I do this with at least ten per visit and these flowers have taken root in my mind and imagination. I can see them, name them, even smell them.

Tharpe suggests that you sharpen your “virtual memory,” too What she means is that you feel the feelings you had about an event in your life so that you can project them into your work. Actors do this all the time. Ancient memory calls up images from the collective unconscious. After Tharpe had choreographed a dance program, she was proud and delighted to find the same suggested movements and positions on a shard of ancient Greek pottery.

". . .you don’t have a good idea until you combine two little ideas. . . ."

If you don’t come upon an image by chance, go mining for images from periods in art history at museums, etc. Keep a box of documents: clippings, CD’s, anything that moves youL in order to uncap your muse. Family photo albums are a reservoir of creativity. Combine ideas. Tharpe says that the rule of Hollywood is that you don’t have a good idea until you combine two little ideas. For example, an adventure story involving two men was pitched to David Mamet. He wasn’t interested until the writer said, “What about two men and a bear?” That idea became The Edge with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin.

Tharpe says that the difference between good ideas is a lot like E.M. Forester’s distinction between narrative and plot. “The Queen died; the king died.” Narrative is “The queen died; the king died of a broken heart.” That is all you need to know about the difference between good and bad ideas.


Rochelle Jewel Shapiro





Rochelle Jewel Shapiro is author of Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) and has published essays in NYT (Lives), Newsweek (My Turn), et. al. Her essay, ESS, ESS, is just out in FEED ME: WRITERS DISH ABOUT FOOD, EATING, WEIGHT, AND BODY IMAGE, ed by Harriet Brown (Random House, 2009). She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry. She teaches Writing the Personal Essay at UCLA extension.