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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