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Before you can think out of the box you have to start with a box

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.

Shooglebox: Twyla Tharp's inspiration boxes

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.”


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