Thinking Inside the Box

I know that great pride is taken by many people for coloring outside the lines and thinking outside the box. But what if this isn’t possible?

Let’s face it – in real life there are lines we can’t break and boxes we can’t get out of. You may think that this stifles creative thinking and artistic expression and so on, but the fact is it doesn’t have to.

Take arts, crafts, music, and writing. You can do all these things for yourself and break all the rules you want to. Don’t use complementary colors! Start a sentence with a conjunction! Go wild!

But often there are constraints on your creativity – when you have a client to please or a style guide you must follow. Rules and boundaries – well, abound.

In these blog posts, I can do pretty much what I want to. End a sentence with a preposition, as I just did. A purist may cringe, but that’s just too bad. If he or she wants to stop reading my blog because I’ve broken the grammatical rules, so be it.

However, in my life, I’ve encountered situations where I couldn’t just do as I pleased. The best example is when I worked for magazine- and book-publishing companies. I had to write what they told me to write and how to write it. Word limits, and cutting prose to fit the word limits, and cutting it again if someone wanted to enlarge the picture on the page. There was no thinking outside the box there, except perhaps seeing if removing a single word would bring up a line and make the paragraph shorter. Do that enough times and you have gained space for the picture of a castle or whatever.

Writing textbooks for children was the worst. There was something called a “scope and sequence chart” which dictated in what order things were to be taught, what they were, and how many times they had to be used. For example, a lesson might cover the consonant blends “tr” and “gr,” and they had to be used two times in each paragraph. Add to that that it had to be a paragraph of 200 words or fewer, and must be written at a second-grade reading level, as measured by a computer.

Think outside that box! I dare you.

But boxes aren’t really boxes if you think about it. You can draw a four-sided box on a piece of paper, but when you get a box from Amazon or eBay, it’s really a cube or a three-dimensional rectangular object. Inside of that, there’s plenty of space to play around.

I think that most situations in life are more like a cube than a four-line box on flat paper. Even in a box on paper, you can always draw something wonderful inside the box instead of just coloring it in one color. There are many dimensions and directions you can go, even if there are constraints in some directions.

To use my example above, I can write a paragraph about a monkey in a tree that grabs food from a tiger’s grip if it tries quickly. Or I can write about a grandmother who grows plants and tries to trap rabbits before they eat them. The ideas are mine, even if they have to be shaped to fit the box.

(And boy, are some instructions complex! I once had to make up an original story based on some existing pictures that had already had another story written about them. I could change the order of the pictures, but not the pictures themselves. And the plot of the story had to be completely new. But I digress.)

I think the most useful kind of thinking is lateral thinking, and that can be done even inside a box. Stop thinking about choosing A or B, and consider C, even if it comes from “out of left field.” Turn the box on its corner and you gain a whole new perspective.

Sometimes you don’t have to break the rules that keep you in a box. Sometimes it helps to look at the rules – and the box – differently instead. It’s an intellectual puzzle – to create something beautiful that’s still inside the box. It’s what sonnets are made of, if you think about it.

Comments always welcome!

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