In Praise of Boxes: Structure and Creativity

A pile of cardboard boxes. Text: Something for Sunday; June 30, 2019; In Praise of Boxes“Think outside the box.”

That’s a common piece of advice about creativity. Do the unexpected. Break through limits. Color outside the lines. Don’t be limited by those pesky boxes.

There’s certainly a lot of truth in that advice. However, I’m here today to defend the importance of boxes, and discuss how they can help our creativity.

Here’s a personal experience of my own. For years, I posted an image almost every week in response to a prompt provided by the WordPress Photo Challenge. (You can see some of my favorites here and here and here.) When they shut down the Photo Challenge just over a year ago, I was heartbroken. The structure of a weekly prompt was the box that inspired me to look at the world differently and more creatively. I missed it so much that for six months I ran my own personal photo challenge, posting an image every week based on a letter of the alphabet. It worked for me, but didn’t catch on and I dropped it after Z. Still, it got me thinking every week, looking for images relating to a particular letter, and that was good.

Here’s another example. I posted recently about how much I love writing haiku. In that post, you’ll notice that in every case the little poems are a response to a prompt: a letter in the A to Z Blog Challenge, a daily prompt in the #HaikuChallenge, or a weekly prompt for #ScifaikuSaturday. I can’t just sit down and come up with a haiku without some kind of structure. I need that box.

Structure helps creativity and productivity in many ways. Science fiction author Ferrett Steinmetz wrote a post on Chuck Wendig’s blog (“Five Things I Learned Writing the Sol Majestic”) in which he shared a number of suggestions for writers. One section is headed “Restrictions Breed Creativity.” He put rules on himself, limiting what he could do or how he could do it, and found this unleashed his thinking. Once again, the boxes helped.

There are any number of other examples. Why do people engage in NaNoWriMo or the more flexible Camp NaNoWriMo options? If you can write 1667 words a day in November, why couldn’t you do it in October? The key is the added structure. Daily productivity can be boosted with systems such as the Pomodoro Technique or a whole suite of suggestions from Elizabeth Spann Craig on “Setting Yourself Up for Success.” It’s nothing but boxes, and it works.

So remember: You can’t think outside the box without boxes. Thank you, boxes!

How does structure help you work?

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Cultivating Creativity

On today’s Wednesday Words, I’m mostly giving you other people’s words, not my own. I want to share some recent blog posts related to creativity. Enjoy!

First, Roz Morris, in her Nail Your Novel blog, posted her inspiring Writer’s Manifesto for 2017: Take Your Imagination Seriously. We’re writers! Imagination is our main tool and purpose, but we tend to be sheepish about it. This is all just pretend, after all. But no, Morris says – we have to step up and welcome our imagination, fight for it, be proud of it. Amen! So now I’m all fired up to get serious about imagination. But how?

Here’s how: 8 Ways to Improve Creativity, posted by Beth Nelan on the Writer’s Edit blog. She gives a series of specific techniques that can make any of us more creative. They range from the simple action of looking up (and around) to take in more of the world than we usually do, to more involved actions like taking courses or traveling the world. Yes, these are excellent ideas that can give any of us a creativity boost.

Coincidentally, I just discovered a blog aimed at my day job, but with ideas that any of us can use: The Creative Professor. Risa Stein posts frequent messages about creativity in the classroom. I can use them in how I teach, but they are also valuable in my writing as well. Here’s the most recent post as of right now: Crappy Pictures are Awesome. She talks about how fearful we all are that others are judging us, and our failures will be on display for all to see. Better to keep our thoughts to ourselves, stick just to what’s safe and expected, right? This kills creativity. Don’t worry if your pictures, or your ideas, seem crappy. I’m reminded of a frequent exhortation from a choral director I know: “Be right or be wrong, but be bold!”

How do you nurture your creativity? What helps you take it seriously? How can you make sure to do more of that in the weeks and months to come? Pick a creativity-bolstering activity and make a pledge to do more of that.

Looking for Letters in All the Strange Places #Photochallenge

MyAlphabetThis weeks’ WordPress Photo Challenge is to find the alphabet in the world around us, and that’s what I did. It’s been a scavenger hunt, looking at everything in this new and slightly strange way: Does that look like a letter? What if I turned it upside down, or cropped it just right, or looked at it from a different angle . . . It stretched my brain. Continue reading

Thinking About Creativity: Two Grids and a Sign #photochallenge

HardHat

This week’s photo challenge was to put the grid, the rectilinear structure in a photo, front and center. In this photo of a construction site there are two different grids, plus a sign, that resonated with my writing life and with creativity in general, so I decided to use this image for the challenge this week.

Continue reading