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Boxed In? Boost Your Creativity with an Extreme Makeover
by Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant

Return to The Writing Life · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Being able to think outside the box is crucial to anyone trying to be creative. But as writers we tend to sit at a box, in a box, typing words that show up on a box, using up boxes of paper to print out our work. Is it any wonder that we sometimes feel like our brain has developed right angles and is made primarily of cardboard? Rather than shipping your box off to UPS, however, you can take a page from TV makeover shows to help you live and write more creatively and with more passion.

As a comedy writer and teacher, I explore the issue of creativity every day, especially with my students. A few months ago one of my students complained that she couldn't think outside the box because "I am the box!" She didn't realize just how true her words were, but I decided to use them as inspiration when I was asked to put together a workshop on creativity for the South Coast Writers' Conference in Gold Beach, OR.

Rather than having the participants in my workshop put in writing the issues they thought limited and restrained their creativity, I decided I'd have them build their own boxes. After all, a writing workshop focused primarily on writing is way too inside the box. For three weeks, I collected all the cardboard I could from around my house. The spiders weren't happy and I'm sure the guys who work for my recycling company thought I'd gone on vacation. But by the time the conference rolled around I had enough cardboard to build an ark; fortunately the day was sunny and I could proceed with my plans.

At the conference, I set out stacks of random-sized pieces of cardboard and rolls of Scotch tape and asked the participants to team up and spend five minutes building a box. They only rules were they had to use every piece of cardboard in their stack and they only had five minutes. I'm a firm believer in tight deadlines to spur creativity -- a short time limit makes it hard to listen to all the voices in your head telling you what to do and not to do.

When time was up, I asked each group to show off their box to the class and to explain the thinking that went into its design and construction. The results were insightful and impressive. One group made a box with a drawer in which to store their ideas. On top, they attached rabbit ears so they could tune into new thoughts that might come from outside their box. A second group stacked boxes up in a pyramid shape, with a heart-shaped box on top (the workshop was in February and I had a few Valentine's Day chocolate boxes left over). They explained their design as a representation of how we can take steps to move from our heads to their hearts. A third group also built a box with a skylight to see out easily, a slide so they could escape when the needed to, and a patio so they could stand on the outside and look in.

The way the participants approached their task, looking for ways to follow the rules but at the same time design boxes that would be easy to get out of or bring new ideas into was wonderful. And the task helped me illustrate my belief that despite outside forces that reinforce our boxes (such as what editors and agents tell us is missing from our work. what is or isn't selling year, or family pressure to grow up and get a real job), we are the ones who build our boxes. Being writers, rather than using a hammer and nails (or Scotch tape and cardboard), we build our boxes with words. Words such as:

  • This piece isn't good enough to let anyone else read. In fact, I'm not going to read it myself.
  • I'm not as good as so-and-so, so why try?
  • A writer is supposed to be published, so I'm not really a writer
  • I should have accomplished more by my age; I mean besides the crows' feet and thirty extra pounds on my thighs
  • I should be doing something productive that will earn more income -- maybe I should dump the novel, write funny cardboard signs, and go stand by the freeway.
  • I just keep repeating myself in my work. I just keep repeating myself in my work.
  • I'll never get on Oprah. And if I do, I'll look dorky or fat.

Is it any wonder that after a while our boxes end up making us feel claustrophobic, stymied, insignificant, easily pigeon-holed, drained, cramped, dizzy, drowsy, restless, afraid of other shapes like circles and tetrahedrons, and antisocial? Not to mention, fearful we might turn into a mime.

Following the example of the conference participants and the recommendations of the interior designers, builders, and landscapers on home makeover programs, here are some tips for changing the structure of your box (without tearing it completely down) so you can be more creative:

  • Round off the corners. Boxes are square and things get stuck in the corners. Think rounded and flowing. Look at your environment for ways you can get rid of boxy shapes and add more curves (yes, eating fifteen pounds of chocolate will make you curvier; whether or not that helps with your creativity is really up to you). Put a chair with rounded arms into your office. Instead of a desk, sit at a circular glass table. Buy a new VW Beetle and park it outside where you can see it while you write. Okay, maybe that's just my dream, but still, what would it hurt? It's not exactly Feng Shui, but the less your life feels like a box, the more likely you are to push past the edges.

  • Add an escape hatch. If you spend most of your writing time in an office or a spare bedroom that doubles as an office and a cat hostel, a visual reminder of how easy it is to get out can help you feel more inspired -- not to mention, you might actually get out more which will definitely give you more to write about. My office has sliding glass doors on the north and west walls (one goes outside, one goes into the house), windows on the east side, a door to the garage on the south, and a skylight overhead. In a writing emergency, I know I don't have to wait for the paramedics to come pry me out with the Jaws of Life -- I can get out on my own.

  • Move out the walls. Too often we compartmentalize our writing life from our "real" life. But writing is a real part of our life and instead of just trying to change our writing box, we should focus on moving out the walls of our life. You can do this by trying new foods and new music, making new friends, reading new genres, and going to new places. You might even test drive other jobs, not for research for your next book or article (although it would definitely be a possibility), but to move beyond the walls of your life.

  • Build in playfulness. Whenever I watch a home makeover show, I always find the ideas the designers use in the young children's rooms more inspiring and motivating, But of course, we're grown-ups and we're supposed to behave in a certain manner. We can't giggle at the library. Color on the walls. Dance for no reason. Have dinosaurs on our bedspread. The grown-up box isn't a very fun place to be, is it? Maybe that's why five-year olds laugh out loud about 400 times a day and adults only fifteen. We've had all the fun sucked out of us. One of my favorite poets, Brian Andreas has a poem called Morning Person that summarizes this perfectly:

I wouldn't mind being grown up, she told me, if I didn't have to get up and be grumpy right away every morning (Brian Andreas, http://www.storypeople.com)

Studies have shown that the majority of things we grown-ups stress out about are ego-related. We worry what other people will think of us if we try something new, make a mistake, aren't as good as the rest of them, etc. By being playful in our lives -- like wearing a tiara to the grocery store, attaching a funny button to your serious jacket, never passing up an opportunity to play hopscotch or Frisbee, carrying a purse shaped like a poodle, or braiding your beard -- we can step beyond those boxed-in grown up boundaries.

  • Trade spaces. If your box starts feeling too confining, trade with someone else. Try living your life for a day as someone famous, perhaps Elvis, Santa, or Dr. Ruth Westheimer. See through their eyes and write with their voice. In my workshop, the class wrote two paragraphs about making a visit to the Emergency Room late at night -- one as themselves and one as Elvis. The Elvis paragraphs weren't always better, but they were usually funnier and didn't fail to bring up new ideas. Try this remodeling exercise yourself, but do remember to go back to your own life -- the world has enough Elvises already!

  • Bring the outside in. There is no home makeover principle that has more resonance for the writing life. We writers spend so much time in our heads, creating characters and stories, that we often forget there's another world out there. A world so full of interesting and unique people and stories that just a simple visit can inspire us like no day spent in front of a blank computer screen can.

We all feel boxed in sometimes. But instead of letting that feeling drive you out of the writing life or into a state of despair, try remodeling your box and see if your creativity doesn't soar.

Find Out More...

Mindplay - Peggy Bechko

Six Ways To Make Your Racing Thoughts Work For You! - R.H. Ramsey

Tapping Your Innate Creativity - Barbara Florio Graham

Using Footpower to Boost Your Brainpower: How Walking Away Can Improve Your Writing - Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant

Copyright © 2007 Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Leigh Anne Jasheway-Bryant is an award-winning humor writer, speaker, stand-up comic, and comedy coach. She is the author of thirteen books, including I'm Not Getting Older (I'm Getting Better at Denial), Yoga for Your Funny Bone, Laugh Lines are Beautiful, Bedtime Stories for Cats, Bedtime Stories for Dogs and Don't Get Mad, Get Funny. Her articles have been published in such major magazines as Family Circle, DogFancy, Good Housekeeping, Reader's Digest, and Better Homes & Gardens' Special Interest publications. She is the host of Women Under the Influence of Laughter on KOPT 1600 AM. Her website is http://www.accidentalcomic.com.


Copyright © 2018 by Moira Allen. All rights reserved.
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