January 2015

Welcome Mid-January!

Happy New Year 2015! I hope that you had a happy holiday season and that you have begun the new year with renewed energy and optimism.

This week has brought mild temperatures and it’s wonderful to be able to walk in them! The warmth (reminiscent of spring) inspires me, as I continue another busy month of writing your marketing and communications materials.

Notwithstanding my new year good wishes, I know that January is (of course) a time when “new year’s resolutions” get broken and when people face personal or professional losses, after the holidays have ended.

In keeping with those realities, in this issue I’ll ask how we can survive creative failure, as Twyla Tharp argues in her book, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life. I’ll also feature Dani Shapiro on a genuine “practice” of writing; present some thoughts and jokes by writers in “Word Nerd’s Corner”; and update you on sundries in the usual “Shop News.”

Enjoy this issue and best wishes for 2015!



CEO, Elizabeth Shih Communications


Want to Survive Creative Failure? Read Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life (2003)

In her encyclopedia on creativity, the renowned American choreographer Twyla Tharp devotes a chapter on the need for creative failure. Her central argument is that creative work requires a disciplined habit that must address artistic failure: just as dealing with failure is inescapable, so is our need to learn from it.

Art is all about trying out new ideas, new approaches to work and not being afraid to test one’s “quirkiest ideas in public” (212).  Because while failure is painful, it also has a “therapeutic power . . . . It cleanses. It helps you put aside who you aren’t and reminds you who you are. Failure humbles” (213).

Tharp says that the best failures are the ones you make privately and can learn from, filing them in your desk drawer, safe from the ears and eyes of strangers. Private failures only cost you in terms of “efficiency – the more you fail, the longer it takes to finish – but no one has to see this” (213).

Privately, you can “edit” out the concepts or “lame areas” that are not up to scratch. Private failure is also valuable because “the more you fail in private, the less you will fail in public.”

But if you forget the importance of early, private failure, or if you lower your standards, thinking your audience won’t notice, you’ll end up with public failure. This Tharp argues is failure of a very different kind: “When you fail in public, you are forcing yourself to learn a whole new set of skills . . . that have nothing to do with creating and everything to do with surviving” (214).

And it’s this survival that becomes a crux of Tharp’s chapter on failure.

She adds that when artists strive to “survive” a public failure, they endure“a . . . tug-of-war between forgetting and remembering” and that it’s critical to be able “to forget the pain of [public] failure while retaining the lessons from it” (214).

To survive is to get through public failure: she cites six reasons for such failure that creatives must learn and that apply to writers as much as to dancers:

(1)   Failure of skill – when you have an idea, but lack the skills to “pull it off.” The only solution here is to develop the skills you need. Work at your craft.

(2)   Failure of concept – when you have a weak idea that “doesn’t hold up” to your development and application of it (215). Drop it and move on.

(3)   Failure of judgment – when you don’t cut or revise as much as you should, instead revising your project for someone else’s ideas. This is a problem when “you’re the one who’ll be judged by the final product” (216).

(4)   Failure of nerve (the “worst” kind) – when you lack “the guts to support your idea and explore the concept fully” (216). You have to take risks to be creative. With experience, you’ll worry less about what others think.

(5)   Failure through repetition – the reality that you need to be prepared to repeat yourself, in order to earn a living. But you shouldn’t allow this to make you “cling to . . . past successes” or you’ll lose touch with creative potential (217).

AND . . .

(6)   Failure from denial – the reality that in order to create anything new, you must presume that others care about what you think. Fears of failing with that audience cause every artist to slip at some point into denying that it exists and that it is critical. But while denial seems to protect you from your “worst fears,” Tharp writes, it can also “blind you to reality,” so that you don’t deal with problems that arise.

Merely thinking that you’ll “fix it later” or that your lapses may go unnoticed by your audience are common examples of denial.

Tharp says that dealing with denial means having to recognize the need to change something that is not working. (She describes how she turned around a “multi-million dollar theatrical enterprise” based on Billy Joel’s music, by addressing how the show failed to resemble the standard musical that her audience expected).

Denial ends when you confront it as being “no longer an option” (221). But the reward is that there is no single “right” answer to apply to your flawed work and that all you can do is “fix the things you know how to fix” (222) within the time and budget left.

The better you address your denial, the less of a public failure will result. And the better you’ll survive and retain valuable lessons from the project.

She argues that creatives should use these (six) forms of public failure as an opportunity for second chances. Writers, for instance, can air a first draft with a test reader.

But Tharp also reminds you when you do so, to trust your judgment above all others, recognizing that the “validation that matters most is the kind that comes with no agenda” (229).

She adds that creative failures should not be blamed on age, contending that studies of the greatest artists of all time (e.g. Mozart, Balanchine, etc.) demonstrate that great productivity persists over many years: “There’s no reason [why] our creativity must dry up as we age” (235).

The “habits” for survival that Tharp promotes in the book ultimately point to transcendence of failure and pain and to getting beyond survival: she closes with a story of a team of dancers who showed up for rehearsal for her in Manhattan, the very morning after the terrorist attacks of September 11th (2001), and where they had performed two days earlier:

The dancers met with Tharp to practice, despite being shaken, because, as she writes, “even in the worst of times, such habits sustain, protect and in the most unlikely way, lift us up. I cannot think of a more compelling reason to foster the creative habit” (243).

Through this frank discussion of different kinds of public creative failures, Tharp is really addressing how we all need creative habits that incorporate them. Survival, and the creative success that you strive for beyond it, depend upon how well you navigate the tensions between forgetting and remembering the lessons that those public failures yield.

Her book contains numerous exercises for readers that stimulate creativity through moments that could otherwise yield failure. The relevance of The Creative Habit for business writing is immense and immediate. Tharp’s study should be compulsory reading for every communications and marketing specialist.

What private and public failures have you experienced in business?

When you look back, when have you felt that survival has spawned your creative success?

When have you been tempted to deny failure(s)? How did you incorporate it/them into your final version?

What creative habits or practices can you adopt, not only to survive, but in crucial moments to “lift you up?”


Nerd Alert! Word Nerd Corner: Quotations on Writers, Reading and Writing . . .

  • “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all morning and took out a comma . . . In the afternoon, I put it back again”
    (Oscar Wilde)
  • On work: “The refuge of those who have nothing better to do”
    (Oscar Wilde)
  • On television: “I find television very educational. Every time someone turns it on, I go into the other room and read a book”
    (Groucho Marx)
  • On email: “A means of communicating with people you don’t want to talk to”
  • On death: “A wonderful way of cutting down on your expenses”
    (Woody Allen)
  • On publishing: “The road to ignorance is paved with good editions”
    (George Bernard Shaw)

(Special thanks again to Paula Jane Remlinger for sharing several sources of “funnies” with me. Send me yours via the “contact” page at www.elizabethshih.com)


From an Expert…

Who: Dani Shapiro, novelist, critic and teacher of creative writing

Where: Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life (2013)

What: On the practice of writing

In this remarkable memoir, best-selling, critically acclaimed novelist and critic Dani Shapiro writes on how non-writers often fail to understand her habit of writing daily, five days a week:

“They tell me that they can’t imagine it. They’d get lonely. Or distracted. Or bored. Or they need more stimulation . . . ‘You must be so disciplined,’ they say . . . . ‘It’s my job,’ I want to say. ‘It has nothing to do with discipline.’. . . ‘I sit down every day at around the same time and put myself in the path of inspiration . . .  . If I’m not there working, then inspiration will pass right by me . . . . It’s hard to overestimate the importance of habit. Of routine . . . . So much can be accomplished, . . . especially when . . . part of a routine, a sacred rhythm that becomes part of your daily life’ ” (49).

While onlookers wonder how she gets “in the mood” to write so well, Shapiro debunks such questions as myths that surround writing: “A writer sits in her writing space, setting aside the time to be alone with her work. Is she inspired doing it? Very possibly not. Is she distracted, bored, lonely, in need of stimulation? Oh, absolutely, without a doubt, it’s hard to be there. Who wants to sit there. Something nags at the edges of her mind. Should she make soup for dinner tonight? She’s on the verge of jumping up from her chair . . . but . . . she remembers . . . . This is her habit, her job, her discipline . . . . She is practicing because she knows that there is no difference between practice and art. The practice is the art” (51).

Writing then is not a sentimental or capricious activity, but involves serious work, even at times labour.

Shapiro also warns against a kind of default mode of writing (which she experienced earlier in her career, when living in New York City) as reacting to distractions through a “series of habits strung together. Not a practice” (132).

Only after relocating with her family to rural Connecticut did she find “the space and quiet” needed to follow a practice of inner wisdom and direction, anchored in patience. Shapiro says: Writers “make choices, and those choices can become practice. When it comes to the practice of writing, it cannot be distraction that propels us but rather the patience — the openness, the willingness — to meet ourselves on the page. To stop being at the mercy of what we surround ourselves with, but rather, to discover our story” (132).

Her meditation in Still Writing on finding those “stories,” driven by patience, applies as powerfully to business writers as to writers of fiction.

And the exquisiteness of Shapiro’s prose, both elegant and tenacious, puts her top of mind as an author to recommend to you, in 2015.

How can cultivating patience and discovering yourself through a regular practice of writing change your own creative habits for the better?


Shop News

Please note: an error occurred in last month’s issue. I reported on attending a seminar of the Raj Manek Mentorship Program about building diversity in business. Due to changes in scheduling, the December seminar was delivered by Fawn Nielsen, not Monica Kreuger, as I earlier reported. (I regret the error and apologize for any confusion that resulted.)

After Fawn’s fine talk, it was also invigorating to hear Kent Smith-Windsor (Executive Director, The Greater Saskatoon Chamber of Commerce) and Bob Pitzel (COO, Failure Prevention Services; painter and designer) reply with their insights into fostering diversity over many years in the province’s  business community.

Elsewhere, I was intrigued by Julie Barnes’ list of contemporary sources of writing that informs her work at Julie Barnes’ Creative Services. Thanks to her for recommending Dani Shapiro’s luminous writing to me.

Also in December, I delighted in the company of  local businesswomen, at the Women Entrepreneurs of SK seasonal holiday party. Thanks again to Lori Jestin-Knaus for organizing and convening that group.

And, as I hope was the case with you, I enjoyed holiday time and planning for the new year with family and friends, both within and beyond Saskatoon’s business community.


About Us . . .

Since 2011, Elizabeth Shih Communications has provided B2B marketing and communications services on the Prairies and across Canada.

Do you need help writing your “marcom” materials? Please contact me through my website, via the CASL-compliant email form, on each page at www.elizabethshih.com.

Once I have received your permission, I’ll be delighted to discuss projects with you!

I help small- and medium-sized businesses create e-newsletters and related communication that secure good clients. Please visit my website for more information (www.elizabethshih.com).


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