About 10 years ago one of the more influential books I read was The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, a choreographer who has produced more than 130 shows and collaborated with the likes of Mikhail Baryshnikov.
I remember taking copious notes as she revealed something that, at least to me, sounded revolutionary: Creativity is not a gift from the gods, but a habit. A habit created day after day by focusing on the right efforts. It’s a discipline built on preparation and hard work, and, she claims, “it’s within reach of everyone who wants to achieve it.”
It sounds so American, doesn’t it? Just dig in and work hard and you can be whatever you want to be. The only one holding you back is yourself. So, pull yourself up by your bootstraps already.
But she doesn’t stop there. She describes her own rigorous process of rising every morning at 6 am to throw herself into a cab and go to the gym for her morning workout to keep her body in the prime condition she needs for developing dance numbers.
She explains how she shuts herself off from the worldly distractions of media, voicemail and balancing her checkbook when she is brainstorming ideas for a new show. She suggests that maybe we should be grateful for projects that lack the resources we think we need because those constraints will force us to be more creative.
“Ms. Tharp is certainly not the first to suggest that practice is the lifeblood of inspiration, but her emphasis on routine and asceticism can make creativity seem downright lawyerly,” wrote Erika Kinetz in her 2003 New York Times profile of Tharp.
Did you hear that? Downright lawyerly.
I have often argued during the writing workshops I have conducted for our lawyers and business services professionals that just because we’re a law firm doesn’t mean we can’t be creative. That we should think a little harder to come up with cleverer names for our newsletters and to use active verbs in our headlines.
I have also advocated that writing is a habit (hence the name of this blog) and that by learning and applying proven techniques, such as those encompassed in my Top 5 Writing Tips, you can’t help but become a clearer, more engaging writer.
It has nothing to do with the creative gods and everything to do with your willingness to embrace change. Over the course of writing this blog for the past two years I have been struck by how many of you have expressed not only a desire, but an enthusiasm for changing.
I have had members of our finance department in Chicago stop me at the firm holiday party and tell me they can no longer write an email without feeling like I’m looking over their shoulder. I have received notes from partners in our international arbitration, banking and finance, employment and corporate groups responding to posts I’ve written about what’s missing from our lawyer bios and how to write better client alerts with, “You’re right. Please help us.”
My favorite has been those who have approached me and almost whispered that they no longer use two spaces between sentences, like I am a punctuation priest hearing their confession. One partner reported to me that his group had yet again sent out a client alert with a headline 25 words long that didn’t get to the point until the fifth paragraph, like I could pick up the phone and put a stop to it.
All of this has been majorly gratifying. It has nearly turned me from a hardened, skeptical journalist into an optimist about the human race and our capacity to change the ways we express ourselves.
So, thank you.
For those of you who haven’t heard the news, I am leaving the firm to take a position with The Bloom Group, a thought leadership consultancy based in Boston. I will remain in Chicago, so please look me up when you come through town and send me a LinkedIn invite if you’d like to stay in touch.
As I depart, I have provided you with more than enough fodder for ways to improve your writing. If you need additional resources, some of my favorite books are On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, The Art & Craft of Feature Writing by William Blundell and On Writing by Stephen King. (Yes, that Stephen King.)
In closing, I leave you with the words of encouragement uttered by one of my writing instructors at the end of every class in her cozy living room, where we read our prose aloud and critiqued each other’s work late into the night.
Just keep going.
Note to readers: This post was written while I was conducting writing workshops for the lawyers and business services professionals at Baker McKenzie, where I wrote and edited the law firm’s thought leadership content for eight years. In the post, I rely on examples from Baker McKenzie communications and refer to the firm in the first person because I worked there at the time of writing.