The Making of a Novel: Twyla Tharp's Magic Box

In Tywla Tharp's lucid and logical book, The Creative Habit, she talks about a simple idea for organizing the things that inspire a project: You put them in a box.

The box makes me feel organized, that I have my act together even when I don't know where I'm going yet. It also represents a commitment. The simple act of writing a project name on the box means I've started work... Most important, though, 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 now where to find it. It's in the box.

Starting a project box is so much more powerful than opening a computer file, or writing a project name on a manila file tab, because the bin is a very physical presence. It defines a significant amount of space. I use $5 white plastic bins from Target. I throw in books and CDs and newspaper articles and magazine pages, and lots of little yellow notepads on which I've scrawled quotes or scenes or names of people I might contact to help me in my research. I can trust the bin not to get accidentally deleted or moved or hidden under a pile of bills.

What I love about going through the bin is that it's a process of discovery. Even though I put everything in there myself, I will often pick up an article or paper and read it and stare at it and have no idea why it's there. Just as often, I will pull something out that I didn't remember putting in -- something that feels like gold, like treasure, like a key.

Yesterday, I dumped out the bin for my novel in progress. I cleared off the dining room table -- well, really it's our only table -- and I spread out the contents of the bin. My goal was to start organizing the material into categories -- i.e. websites to research, people to contact, notes about theme, details on character, trash. What happened, however, was the first item I picked up -- an article from the Los Angeles Times from about a year ago -- made a light bulb go off in my head about a conflict for one of my characters. I got up from the table, went to my computer, and wrote several great paragraphs.

I have a long way to go on the rest of the bin. No one is going to be eating dinner at my table for some time now. But I feel that good things are about to happen with my story.

  • Listen to Twyla herself. Love her!

If you're interested in other great ideas on creativity and habit, check out 43 Folders.