Sparked by Words



cardboard-box-1413073The instructions were simple and perhaps that’s why they confounded so many of my high school art students. Draw a square. Write the word “peace.”

Kids want instructions, lots of them, to be certain they’re doing it right, whatever “it” is, whatever “right” is. Each approached the assignment like baby birds on the edge of the nest. Some watched out of the corners of their eyes to see what other students were doing. Some plunged right in and drew what they thought I wanted. Some frowned and made a sloppy interpretation of the assignment, while others asked for a ruler. A few asked for more directions and flipped their pencils when I refused. During each class, one or two or lots of the kids made a box that broke the rules, writing a word that wasn’t “peace,” drawing a square that was a circle, a squiggly line, or a rectangle. Every once in while, a kid sat and refused to do anything.

As we talked about what each student had drawn (or hadn’t), they realized I wasn’t looking for conformity or for a correct answer, but for them to find a way to begin their own creative process. Someone always got the visual pun – drawing outside the box. Today’s kids aren’t brighter than their grandparents, but they’ve more savvy, exposed to world issues via computer and endless feeds on their devices. They’re experienced at accessing instant information. Still, they want the sure thing.

When I started writing, I wanted a sure thing as well, a well marked path to publication and books on a shelf at Barnes & Noble. Nowadays the path to publication is a circuitous route to a multitude of publishing options. Authors choose one way or another and still must promote their books as if flagging down trains to take them to the closest constellation.

It’s said there are no original stories, only creative mash ups of plots written many times over, of the same few themes that dominate all books, the same-old over and over. Does that mean everything I write lacks any originality at all? That my work, as anyone’s work, falls into a writing formula?

I’ve been thinking about the stories I loved reading and how far out of the box they strayed. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger is about a woman deeply in love with a man who can’t stick around in the same era as his wife. Henry blips in and out of different years without warning or control. Clare waits for him until he finds his way back to her. It seemed an extraordinary concept when I read it the first time, love so powerful it can endure any absence, every fracture. Even when one’s lover leaves. Even death. Themes of betrayal and forgiveness inform Time Traveler.

These same themes can be allocated to Ian Mc Ewan’s Atonement, to Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, to The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. Each book is memorable on its own merits and resembles the others only because I loved them enough to read each more than once. They are stories that broadcast magnetic personalities and unusual circumstances. They capture our imagination.

If we’re thinking about stories that incorporate time travel as a significant element, we must include The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain. Each of these books stands alone, delightful and exceptional on its own merits, each a pleasure to read. If there are similarities, they are more like “apple is to occupation as wheat field is to cathedral.” A long story to make the connection.

When I began to write, I began at the same moment to doubt myself. Unsure about my right to write, my lack of knowledge, insight, experience, craftsmanship. All of it related to how much I knew or didn’t know about life. Many moments I felt  a lack of intuition, but sometimes the stories I wrote lifted off the page into a multi-dimensional episode. Sometimes I got it right. The more I work at writing, the more determined I am to stay outside the lines, away from formulae and familiarity. I aim to avoid the “been there” effect.

I gave my art students the box assignment not because I waxed triumphant over their confusion or insecurity, but because I knew how bright the flame could spark for each of them. There was no right answer, no wrong, just the effort to create, to find their own way. Inside the box or out, my students learned that art class was a safe place to experiment, the same way a baby bird learns to fly. It leaps and then spreads its wings, struggling to grasp the draft of the wind. Writing for me has been much the same flight off the edge of the nest.

Inside the box or out, mankind struggles. There lies the story.

Comments on: "O is for Outside the Box is a Story" (12)

  1. Nice post. Assignments like that are interesting to watch. Amazing how the same instructions can bring such a wide variety of results. Just as a simple writing prompt
    could send you and I creating two different works of writing.


  2. In the college classes I teach, I’m surprised how many students are confounded when I tell them perfection won’t get them an A. That’s reserved for hard work, critical thinking, trying and failing. When did those traits get lost in the mix?


    • I’m not surprised at your experience, Jacqui. When a class is grade driven, the focus becomes how one can get an “A” rather than how one can do their personal best. As for experimentation in pursuit of exceptional achievement, many people are nearly catatonic. The other side of that problem is how little some people are willing to apply themselves to learning a difficult task. I just finished reading Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, a book about how success is achieved. One thing he noted is that people even when extraordinarily gifted in a field, must put in 10,000 hours to really learn their craft. Tell that to someone just beginning to learn to play piano, or chess, or how to write. I bet you’ve put 10,000 hours into learning technology as well as writing. That’s the time spent doing hard work, critical thinking, trying, and failing.


  3. Shari, I wish you’d teach an art class for us adults. You must be a remarkable teacher.

    The struggling stops when people like you help nurture creative thinking and doing.


    • Judy, you just lifted my heart. Thank you for that wonderful comment. I loved teaching art and would be so thrilled to do it again, but art is so dependent upon materials and space, it becomes a daunting operation. I actually would love to donate my skills to children with special needs who often don’t get to take art classes because their days are spent with intensive instruction in other fields, but even that requires a financial investment I can’t manage.
      I’m still smiling from your compliment.


  4. This reminds me of my Art 101 class. After 40 plus years of wondering if i could draw, i took a drawing class. Two weeks into the course we were doing Betty Edwards exercises. i called my teacher over to my easel and asked, “Will we be learning technique and prospective? i’m taking this class to learn to draw.” She looked and me and smiled, saying, “i’m not teaching you how to draw… i’m teaching you how to see.” For me, that changed everything.


    • What a great story. What a great teacher. That’s also what I taught my art students: first you learn to see, then you learn to think, then you make art. Thanks for reading this, Rick. I’m so glad to meet you here. Are you back to drawing again? Your work is beautiful, I always love seeing it. *: )


  5. This is a beautiful post with so many reminders of wonderful books as well as a powerful message. You are an amazing teacher. I wish I could have been in your high school art class.


    • Thanks, Chavva. I wish I could have taught more art at TBE – would love to be teaching art still, but all things change. Some of the kids whom I taught are now teaching art – a very sweet thought for me.


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