Day Fifteen: Starting with a box

As certain of my students know, I usually don’t like books on the craft of writing. There are a few exceptions (Bird by Bird and Art and Fear, for example), but anything that attempts to lay out a set of rules makes me chafe.

More to the point, I’ve seen too many people read endlessly about how to go about making art without ever actually making art. Just jump off the cliff, I always think.

A while ago, though, a young friend recommended that I read a book called The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp, the famous dancer/choreographer. This recommendation came after an evening which included me having dinner with his parents, him wandering into the kitchen during dessert, and some sort of conversation about typing speed in which I proclaimed that I was the fastest typist in the history of the world, after which he challenged me to a typing duel.

Which I won, thanks, because I am the fastest typist in the history of the world.

This photo conveys absolutely nothing of the intense drama, shrieked curses and fisticuffs that were thrown throughout the duel.

Which I won, by the way.

WON.

Anyway, when things had calmed down, my young friend, who’s an astonishing musician and composer despite having just graduated from high school, asked me what I thought of the Tharp book and was so genuinely taken aback that I had not only not read it but never heard of it that I was shamed into buying it the next day. I then put it in a prominent place on my living room bookshelf, where it remained, unread, until today.

Today’s challenge was to dive into the Tharp book, just open a page and start reading. Here’s what I opened up to.

Chapter Five: “Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box. Everyone has his or her own organizational system. Mine is a box, the kind you can buy at Office Depot for transferring files. I start every dance with a box. I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me. . . If you want a glimpse into how I think and work, you could do worse than to start with my boxes.”

Reading this made me instantly jealous. I pictured a beautiful library in a beautiful Manhattan apartment, with dozens of built-in bookshelves lining the walls, each one filled with different beautifully-labeled Twyla Tharp project boxes. I was happy for her and sad for myself, because I have nothing like that. No records of anything. When people ask me to donate my “papers” for a particular book, I shake my head sadly and tell them I have nothing concrete, only cyber nothingness.

Me to youthful companion: I wish I kept a record of things in boxes, like Twyla Tharp does.

YC: You do.

Me: I do not.

YC, pointing dramatically: Then what are those?

Huh. Well, well, well. I guess those would be a whole bunch of boxes.

These boxes (above), which are on the walls of the upstairs “office” that I never work in, are all neatly labeled, and they look neat and tidy, but inside is a different story.

The “Travel” box, for example: maps and handscrawled notes and leftover euros and escudos and yuan and guidebooks and jotted-down directions to trailheads across the country.

These boxes? They contain ribboned bundles of letters, sorted by sender, some bundles containing hundreds, others only two or three, all of which I’ve been saving from high school on. These boxes have moved everywhere in the country that I have moved.

There are three whole boxes devoted to letters from my friend Kingsley. Each one of them is a work of art containing clippings and a manual-typewriter-typed letter in a handmade envelope.

There are a bunch of boxes labeled “Manuscripts,” which is a catch-all term including notes for novels and picture books, actual printed-out or handwritten manuscripts, contracts, photos, catalogues, and letters, all of which are jumbled up together so that if I ever need to get to a particular contract or manuscript, I will be completely unable to do so.

After wandering around my house noting all the boxes piled up in closets and on shelves, I have come to the conclusion that today’s challenge –to dive into a brand-new book on the creative process that I had never before read– is less about the book and more about a) the ever so slight similarity between the fabulous Twyla Tharp’s in-a-box process and my completely unfabulous box system, b) the fact that there’s a lot more tangibility to the way I go about writing than I would have thought, and c) the disquieting notion that maybe there are a whole lot of other things I don’t really know about myself.

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