Twyla Tharp on Creativity: Observational Focal Length

06Jul09

As I’ve said many times, I’m indebted to the Kindle for the ability to download a few chapters of books to sample the content.  It definitely expands the range of one’s reading.

So, honoring the Read Unusual Things principle, prompted by a review in The Week I downloaded “The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life” by legendary dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp, who obviously knows something about the topic.

One interesting concept she discusses, that I’ve not previously considered, is “observational focal length,” i.e., whether we “find comfort in seeing the world either from a great distance, at arm’s length, or in close-up.”  She illustrates the idea thus:

  • Ansel Adams was compelled to see the world from a great distance, trekking to the wilderness or mountaintop to gain the widest view of land and sky.
  • Choreographer “Jerome Robbins…tended to see the world from a middle distance,” e.g., in West Side Story, “nearly every group scene involves performers being observed.  Jets watch Sharks; Sharks watch Jets.  Girls watch boys; boys watch girls,” etc.
  • Raymond Chandler, “was obsessed with detail. He works in extreme close-up, a succession of tight shots that practically put us inside the characters’ skulls.”  Up close was Chandler’s focal length.

Ms. Tharp suggests that each of us is hard-wired a certain way, and that hard-wiring insinuates itself into our work and forms our “signature.”

So, here’s a question for those of you who have worked with me or been closely enough associated with me to have formed an opinion:  What is my observational focal length?  What specific pattern of observations bring you to that conclusion?

Thanks in advance for your thoughts.

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