Friday, May 2, 2014

The Boxes

Things are getting rather real lately. In the next two weeks, I have four AP tests, an in-class essay, a concert, a final project, and a final exam. This is much less hectic than last year, but it does mean that it's more of a challenge to carve out time to sit and write for an hour.

But sitting down and writing is not the only way to make progress, and though there is great value in forcing yourself to focus on your writing, sometimes your brain really does just have to take a break. For those times, it's good to have something else you can do to make progress on a project while simultaneously relaxing.

But what?

I ran into an answer a week ago when I read The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp. (Excellent book, by the way, and visually pleasing as well.) In it, she devotes two back-to-back chapters to the ideas of "the box" and "scratching." More below.


On "the box":

"There's no single correct system. Anything can work, so long as it lets you store and retrieve your ideas--and never lose them…A writer with a good storage and retrieval system can write faster. He isn't spending a lot of time looking things up, scouring his papers, and patrolling other rooms at home wondering where he left that perfect quote. It's in the box.

A perfect archive also gives you more material to call on, to use as a spark for invention. Beethoven, despite his unruly reputation…was well organized. He saved everything in a series of notebooks that were organized according to the level of development of the idea…He never puts the ideas back exactly the same. He always moves them forward, and by doing so, he re-energizes them…

That's the true value of the box: It contains your inspirations without confirming your creativity." (82-83) //emphasis mine
Let me emphasize: good organization is key. I have been misfortunate, or lazy, enough to construct systems that stop working very quickly. A cumbersome structure stifles productivity very, very quickly.

To include in the box: "two blue index cards. I believe in starting each project with a stated goal…to remind me of what I was thinking at the beginning if and when I lose my way. I write it down on a slip of paper and it's the first thing that goes into the box." (85)
I often lose track of what I wanted to do with a work and, typically, end up a few orders of magnitude less epic than I wanted.

"a box is like soil to me. It's basic, earthy, elemental…It's what I can always go back to when I need to regroup and keep my bearings. Knowing that the box is always there gives me the freedom to venture out, be bold, dare to fall flat on my face. Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box." (88) //emphasis
At this point, you may have the question "what else goes into the box?" In case the above quotes weren't clear, it's essentially a research/inspiration/draft archive for whatever project you're working on.

Journalist: "Filling up the notebook can take hours or months…but only when his research and reporting are done and his notebook is full does he write the story. If his reporting is good, the writing will reflect that. It will come out clearly and quickly. If the reporting is shoddy, the writing will be, too. It will be torture to get the words out.

My box is like the journalist's notes. It's the 'reporting' routine I follow before creating a piece. If the quality of a journalist's work is a direct function of how much background material he has sifted through…that is, how diligent and clever he was in assembling his research--then the quality of my creative output is also a function of how diligent and clever I've been in filling up my boxes." (88-89) //emphasis mine
This was really the moment when I sat up and took notice, because writing UM is going rather slowly, and I think it's because I haven't been diligent enough in filling up my "box."


On "scratching":

Scratching around for ideas "can look like borrowing or appropriating, but it's an essential part of creativity. It's primal, and very private. It's a way of saying to the gods, 'Oh, don't mind me, I'll just wander around in these back hallways…' and then grabbing that piece of fire and running like hell." (95) //emphasis mine
Another moment to pay attention, for me personally, because I have a strong resonance with the symbol/story of Prometheus. Also, I greatly admire Austin Kleon, whose book Steal Like an Artist (which I haven't yet read) seems geared toward "scratching" well.

Places to scratch: books/magazines/the written word, conversation, other people's work, nature
Tharp's list.

Ways to make scratching easier: practice it (coming back after a break, you're going to need time to get back up to full capacity--re-introductory work is going to be worse), go to good sources (use the "best fabric"), vary your inspirations; in a pinch, get angry //emphasis mine
Let's look at the first item in this list: practice it. Okay. Will do.


What's the solution to my question: how can you progress your work when your brain is fried?

Scratch. And the things you scratch, put in your box. In other words, collect inspiration and research where you'll be able to find them later.

To that effect, on Monday I made three new Tumblrs that will serve as repositories for images, words, music, whatever, that relate to various projects. I waste a lot of time on Tumblr at the moment, and I might as well get something out of it, by reblogging cool stuff that can be "soil" out of which my own works can grow.

I haven't been doing this long so I can't yet say if I recommend it or not. But I do like having the Tumblrs there, where I won't lose links or images that I like. It unloads a minor weight from my memory, of having to remember. You can empty your mind and intentions into the box and no longer worry that you're going to misplace something (and that is something that I deeply loathe, losing things. I've had nightmares about losing my wallet. This is probably psychological).

Might this detract from real writing time? Well, possibly, but I know myself and I know that when my brain needs a break, it's going to have a break. Gathering inspirations is generally less valuable than actually producing work, but it's a whole lot better than Facebook-stalking people I don't care about, which is what happens all too often when my brain is tired.

Besides, the box will probably enrich the writing somehow. I am bad at conveying a sense of atmosphere, and collecting images of the relevant places may help with that. This is also a lot less messy than trying to do an inspiration board or something of that sort.

So this is an experiment. We'll see if this helps, by which I mean if it

  1. keeps me from wasting time on Facebook and non-interesting Tumblrs
  2. makes the writing process more efficient by collecting all the info I need in a convenient place
  3. provides new ideas.

Here are the Tumblrs in question:

Check them out, see how I'm doing. Scheduled posts for the next two weeks, which are probably better than my live ones. If you're taking AP tests, good luck! Even if you're not, good luck anyway!

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