Loving the Box: How to find inspiration in your limits

The career of a writer is often a case of hurry up and wait. Or more accurately, wait and hurry up. You work on project after project on your own, for free, with no deadlines except those you impose on yourself. This can go on for years.

Then, something happens: you advance in a contest and must scramble to meet the second-round deadline. An agent responds to your query letter and you have to submit the full manuscript as soon as possible. Or in my case, recently, a studio decided to buy a feature I wrote. Woo-hoo! Exciting news! But it also means I’ve transitioned from writing this script on my own, with as much time as I’d like to plan, work on other projects between drafts, get notes from friends, and stare morosely out windows for inspiration, to being on someone else’s timeline, which right now includes producing a page-one rewrite in two weeks. (And yet I find time to write this blog post—the things I do for you people.) I’ve had to adapt my mentality, from focusing on process and being satisfied with hours put in, regardless of the outcome, to pressuring myself to produce results.

Behold, my process

A tight deadline isn’t the only new expectation. Now, I’m working within the confines of someone else’s needs and tastes. Everything from the age of the characters to the types of language I can use in jokes is mediated by what the buyer wants for their audience, for this year.

For instance, since the movie is being positioned to potentially air on cable television, I have to fit the story to the studio’s proprietary act structure, designed to accommodate commercial breaks, which divides the film into a certain number of acts, each of which has to be a specific, different number of minutes. It’s like playing story Sudoku, except in a world where you have two fours and no sevens.

But when I’m not questioning my sanity and stringing myself along on caffeine, I’m actually trying to embrace the challenges of this assignment. Making cuts has forced me to focus on what really matters in the story, and the moments where the characters can shine. Tonal adjustments have pushed me to find humor in unexpected places—which is often, of course, the best kind of humor. And to accommodate structural changes, I’m having to get creative with things like pre-laps (voiceover transitions between scenes).

Ironically, restriction can be a friend to creativity. Part of the joy and beauty of writing is the unending possibilities of the blank page. You can say anything you want, in any way that you can imagine. But that openness can be paralyzing, or lend itself to undisciplined work. In poetry, adhering to constraints of meter, rhyme, or stanza grouping can on its face appear harder than writing free verse. But it also pushes you to find new ways to say what you want to say, which is sometimes how you find the most arresting images and contortions of words.

Feeling trapped?

If you’re trying to get creative and feel stuck, give yourself new restrictions.

Stuck in a box?

Box yourself in. Look up writing prompts and try one of those instead of staring at a white page. Set a timer and give yourself a word limit to hit in an hour. Write a scene from a different character’s point of view. Come up with a list of words and challenge yourself to use each of them in a scene. Pick a traditional poetic form and write a poem that adheres to that. It’s easier to choreograph a dance if you have music to work with—or play against.

In the same way that life’s struggles build character and push us to be our best, writing within restrictions can strengthen our mental muscles and force us past the obvious to the unusual. So embrace your box! Or build your own, if you’re feeling stuck in the open air.

4 thoughts on “Loving the Box: How to find inspiration in your limits”

  1. OMG, how true this is! I published my first (only?) book in my field in 2012. Being a newbie to the process, I knew exactly what I wanted to say and how to say it. My acquisitions editor, however, provided me with a non-negotiable “box”–precise page length, number of chapters (24), tone, audience, and a 6-month deadline! After one night lying awake in a cold sweat, I settled down, actually enjoyed the work, and got it done two weeks ahead of schedule. The box worked for me!

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