Shooglebox blog

When choreographer Twyla Tharp starts working on a new dance she gets out a big empty cardboard box and writes the project name on it.

The box will act as the repository for everything that goes into the making of the dance – notebooks, index cards, news clippings, CDs, videos of her working alone in her studio or dancers rehearsing, books, photographs and anything that has inspired her.

She describes how she uses her boxes in her book The Creative Habit, a really inspiring and practical guide for anyone interested in the creative process.

In Chapter 5 – Before you can think out of the box you have to start with a box – she says: "There are separate boxes for everything I've ever done. If you want a glimpse into how I think and work, you could do worse than to start with my boxes.”

She describes the box as “the raw index of your preparation – the repository of your creative potential”.

It contains your inspirations without confining your creativity.

The actual act of creating happens out of the box – but the quality of the creative output is down to “how diligent and clever I’ve been in filling up my boxes”.

Getting started

A new box represents a commitment – “The simple act of writing a project name on the box means I’ve started work.

"The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don't know where I'm going yet.

The first thing into the box are some cards summarising the project goals – to remind her what she was thinking at the beginning “if and when I lose my way”.

Over time the box fills up with research material, background information, and little ideas and inspirational things as she comes across them.

Most important: “The box means I never have to worry about forgetting. One of the biggest fears for a creative person is that some brilliant idea will get lost because you didn't write it down and put it in a safe place. I don't worry about that because I know where to find it. It's all in the box.”

She says the box can seem a haphazard tool when you’re filling it with half-baked inspirations – but “learn to respect your box’s strange and disorderly ways”.

Getting stuck

Sometimes you’ll find you get stuck in the research stage. You have lots of material, but just can't move on to the writing or creation phase. Her advice is to stop and get out of this box.

“Put it away for another day and start a new box. But do so with the faith that nothing is lost, that you haven't put in all this effort for naught. Everything you've done is in the box. You can always come back to it.”

Looking back

Don’t underestimate the value of your box when the project is finished.

“That's when you can look back and see the directions you didn't take, the ideas that intrigued you but didn't fit this time around … and might be the start of your next box.”

One of the ways you can use Shooglebox is for squirrelling away all the interesting words of wisdom, quotations and other things you come across in your life – something writers and thinkers used to call commonplacing.

They used a blank commonplace book to capture quotes, facts, sayings, passages from books they were reading and things they'd seen or heard, as well as their own thoughts and ideas.

Entries were grouped under multiple commonplace headings so it was easy to explore and retrieve material to use in their own writing or arguments.

Shakespeare would have been taught the commonplacing method at school and would have used it to gather and draw on a wealth of old stories, proverbs and sayings that fed in to the creation of his plays and sonnets.

The method emerged in the 16th century at a time when, just like today, people were complaining of "information overload" – at that time, brought on by the explosion in book publishing.

The commonplace book acted as an external memory – more reliable than your own.

But the concept of using existing words and wisdom as inspiration for new thoughts dates even further back – to the ancient Greeks and beyond. Writing in 1620, Francis Bacon said: “The ancients followed the same course as ourselves … they, too, when commencing their meditations, laid up instances and particulars and digested them under topics and titles in their commonplace books.”

Commonplacing was the technique that helped Shakespeare and his contemporaries become so inventive and prolific in their output of plays to meet the demand of the audiences flocking to the Elizabethan playhouses.

In an essay on commonplacing, Walter J. Ong said: “Shakespeare did not ‘create’ from nothing. He did not want to, nor did he even consider the possibility. (There is no such possibility.)

“He wanted to rework the old wisdom in an always fresh and meaningful way.

“Shakespeare is perhaps our most quotable author in English, or at least the most quoted. It is, or should be, a commonplace that the reason he is quotable is that his text consists so much of quotations – not grossly appropriated, but nuanced, woven into the texture of his work …”

Many writers in the following centuries continued to rely on commonplace books. Jonathan Swift said:

"A common-place book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, as 'great wits have short memories'. A book of this sort is in the nature of a supplemental memory. There you enter not only your own original thoughts (which, a hundred to one, are few and insignificant) but of other men."

Commonplacing techniques were taught at universities and manuals were published with advice on the best ways to keep and index your commonplace book.

Readers would highlight words or passages of interest as they went through a book, scribbling notes in the margins, then go back and identify the most interesting and useful extracts to be copied out by hand into their commonplace book. They would regularly go back through the index of their notebooks, and the notes themselves, looking for themes or connections they'd not noticed before.

The commonplace book of the 16th and 17th centuries was not portable – you couldn't juggle a big book, pen and inkstand on the move.

So how did you capture the things you saw or heard when out and about?

The answer was small erasable notebooks known as writing tables. These pocket-sized books came with a metal stylus and had rigid pages that had been treated so you could write on them then rub them clean with a damp cloth. When you got home you'd copy out content from your portable tables into your bigger commonplace book before wiping the pages clean.

Shakespeare refers to commonplace books and writing tables in several of his plays – including Hamlet, where the prince gets out his erasable pocket book to capture his thoughts after encountering the ghost of his father.

Hamlet makes a note in his portable 'writing tables' – Richard Burton in the title role on Broadway in 1964

With the invention of the fountain pen, it became easier to take notes on the move – and today we can instantly capture everything we see, hear and read on our mobile phones.

But we can still learn from the way the great writers of the past used their commonplace books.

Their value wasn't just as a second external memory – a repository for all the information you amassed. They allowed you to switch between order and disorder – digesting the contents, analysing themes, making links and connections, and using your judgment and imagination to create something new from what you rediscovered there.

Ann M. Blair's book Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age is an excellent exploration of the subject.

If you’re using Shooglebox to help you come up with better ideas, you’ll find the perfect user manual in this wonderful little book first published nearly 80 years ago.

James Webb Young’s A Technique for Producing Ideas takes less than half an hour to read – but sums up the creative process better than any of the many (much longer) books written since.

The underlying principle is that an idea is just a new combination of things that already exist – and that having ideas depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

Young – an American advertising executive – describes the method for producing ideas as a five-stage process:

Stage 1: Gather raw material

That might sound obvious – but as Young says: “It really is amazing to what degree this step is ignored in practice. 

“It is such a terrible chore we are constantly trying to dodge it. Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us.”

You need to gather two types of raw material – specific material about your current project in hand and general material … the interesting stuff you come across day to day.

“In advertising, the specific materials are those relating to the product and the people you want to sell it to.”

But Young says most people stop too soon in the process of looking for that specific material. They make quick assumptions and miss the things that might lead to an idea if they dig deeper and further.

Of equal importance is the continuous process of feeding your mind with "general materials".

Young says: “Every really good creative person in advertising whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested – from, say, Egyptian burial customs to modern art. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow: no browsing, no milk.”

The reason this is important comes back to the principle: an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.

“In advertising an idea results from a new combination of specific knowledge about products and people with general knowledge about life and events." 

It’s a principle that applies in any field where creativity and good ideas are valued.

You’ve probably seen this quote from Steve Jobs: “Creativity is just connecting things.”

It’s from an interview for Wired in 1996. He said: ”When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.

“And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people.

“Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem.

“The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.”

James Webb Young had some practical suggestions to help with the material-gathering process.

He recommended writing down each item of specific information on little cards, then after a while classifying them by sections of your subject, until you end up with a whole file box of cards.

And he suggested storing up all the general material you come across in scrapbooks or files – like Sherlock Holmes did with his scrapbooks.

Young says: “We run across an enormous amount of fugitive material which can be grist to the idea-producer’s mill – newspaper clippings, publication articles, and original observations. Out of such material it is possible to build a useful source of ideas.”

Shooglebox is a 21st century store for all this general “grist” to your mill – as well as all the specific material you gather for individual projects.

You create an individual card for each piece of material – and you can keep your cards in one box or separate boxes for different projects. 

It’s easier than in Young’s days to find, grab and store information – but the same health warning remains. Your ability to come up with ideas depends on your curiosity. A quick Google search isn’t going to work. The more and further you dig, the more you will find – and the more you’ll have to play with in the second stage of the creative process.

Stage 2: Digest everything you’ve gathered

This is where you go back over the material you’ve gathered and process it, explore it, and start to look for those relationships that lead to ideas.

Young says: “What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind.

“You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit.”

“What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Young describes this stage of the process as going on inside your head – but here’s where Shooglebox gives you a helping hand.

It’s been designed to give you lots of ways to explore the things you’ve collected. You can switch into different modes to sift, sort and shuffle your cards. And their visual nature helps you spot patterns, relationships and connections.

Sometimes, just shaking up the cards in front of you makes something leap out and help you see a relationship you didn’t see before.

As you do all this, you’ll start asking new questions that lead you back to do more of your raw material gathering.

And you’ll start having “little tentative or partial ideas”.

Don’t mistake these for the real big idea that is to come – but Young says jot them down on a card, no matter how crazy or incomplete they seem.

As with the first stage, Young warns not to give up too soon. 

“The mind, too, has a second wind. Go after at least this second layer of mental energy in this process. Keep trying to get one or more partial thoughts onto your little cards.”

But he said after a while you will hit the hopeless stage.

"When you reach this point, if you have first really persisted in efforts to fit your puzzle together, then the second stage in the whole process is completed, and you are ready for the third one."

Stage 3: Put it out of your mind and do something else

Here's where most people go wrong again. They try to come up with a good idea while concentrating on the problem – staring directly at it.

Instead, Young says: “In this third stage you make absolutely no effort of a direct nature. You drop the whole subject, and put the problem out of your mind as completely as you can.

"It is important to realise that this is just as definite and just as necessary a stage in the process as the two preceding ones. What you have to do at this time, apparently, is to turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep."

Just as Sherlock Holmes would stop right in the middle of a case and drag Watson off to a concert, he advises you turn to whatever stimulates your emotions – listen to music, go to the theatre or movies, read poetry or a detective story.

Stage 4: Out of nowhere the Big Idea will appear

Young says: “If you have really done your part in these stages of the process you will almost surely experience the fourth.

“Out of nowhere the Idea will appear.

“It will come to you when you are least expecting it – while shaving, or bathing or most often when you are half awake. It may waken you in the middle of the night.”

Ideas come when you stop straining for them and have spent time resting and relaxing after the search.

Einstein said: “You get your best ideas when you relax and let your mind wander: Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

Stage 5: Submit your idea to the ‘criticism of the judicious’

This is the stage where you have to take your idea out into the world of reality and share it with others.

Young says you usually find it’s not quite as marvellous as you first thought – but good feedback can make it better.

“Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious.

“When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. 

"It stimulates those who see it to add to it. 

"Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.”

Shooglebox helps with this stage of the process too.

By nature, the first two stages of the creative process are messy and fluid … so the contents of your box might only make sense or be useful to you alone.

When it comes to sharing your idea with others, you can switch to Storyboard Mode and lay out a more structured “story” using some of the cards from your box and creating others to fill in gaps.

You can share the Storyboard with others – and you’ve also got the option to share the whole box of cards that inspired it.

So that’s the five-stage process for producing ideas.

  1. Gather lots of raw material – both specific and general

  2. Think about and explore your material, seeking relationships

  3. Drop the whole subject and put it out of your conscious mind

  4. Out of nowhere the Idea will appear when you're least expecting it

  5. Share your idea with people whose opinions you value and trust

Grab a copy of the book for yourself – it’s the only manual you’ll need for getting the best out of Shooglebox

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