The Dreaded Box

I've been thinking a lot lately about stability versus spontaneity, freedom versus structure. Sometimes I find myself saying things like, "You can't grow unless you try new things, even if it's just trying a different shampoo every time you run out," and "If I die today, I won't care if the dishes were done." Then, on another day, I will preach that you can't live or grow in chaos. Humans need routines. Otherwise, we inevitably feel lost.

So how does one keep oneself from teetering over the edge… or never even approaching the brink to see that gorgeous view? I'm wondering what it means to have structure and what it means to be free, and I'm wondering if the two are really opposites at all. Our earth seems wild, fierce and impulsive at times—with natural disasters shocking us from out of nowhere, ancient killing machines crashing through our oceans, and shooting stars soaring through the skies just when we happen to be looking up, feeling lost. But we also have an atmosphere, a strict rhythm that protects us, holds us together, and keeps us stable.

It does seem that the dreaded "box" is what we need, a channel in which to direct the flow of our creativity. What's a rushing river without rocks and dirt holding it in? A great big puddle or, even worse, a devastating flood. Even great artists work within the chosen limits of canvas and paint, strings, and wood, or simply their own bodies and the dance floor. Without these boundaries, the expression would be meaningless. Without respect for the fact that other people exist and need their own legroom, that we sometimes need to draw back to our designated space, love is not loving and what we would call friendship is just tyranny.

On the inside of the box, though, things can remain static and get covered in the dust of apathy and fear. If we tell ourselves that familiarity makes us safe, or that we don't like it but it's all we've got, we are lying to ourselves on both counts. We weren't made for the mundane, but to make the mundane interesting by giving it meaning. When it's my turn to wash the dishes or do the laundry and I feel like pouting, I create stories in my mind, thinking of the far-reaching consequences of a clean pair of pants and fresh undies in the morning. Any stress taken away from me or my husband means we take less stress into the world. If he smiles at one person on the way into work, maybe she feels more cheerful and takes things easier on her assistant. Maybe the assistant takes things easier on his girlfriend later. Maybe the commonplace, what seems tedious, is just a humble-appearing stepping stone to true love and creativity. If I hadn't sat down with a calendar and a pen and scheduled "creative time," I wouldn't be at least attempting to work out something meaningful right now. Sometimes it's the boring things that give us the most profound avenues for expressing ourselves, expressing love. Whether we like it or not, I think all those unexciting details add up to show us who we really are just as much as our bursts of courage and impulsiveness.

So how does all of this apply to our lives as artists? The stereotype of an artist is to be a bohemian, unhindered by schedules or unpleasant tasks, not trying to become worthy of his or her work, but concerned in pretentious egotism that the work is worthy of him. The artist, some have suggested, is a higher being released from ordinary moral restraints and any kind of dull, laborious duty. But we know that the clothing designer who isn't willing to learn to sew a simple hem isn't going to go far, the painter who refuses take the time to invest in the right canvas will ruin her own work, and the writer who refuses to learn the basic rules of grammar will never be taken seriously. Real artists, in fact, may be the only people truly able to see the absurdity of the artist stereotype.

On the reverse, however, we must realize that many rules are at their core arbitrary. If we try to boil art down to an exact science we take all the life and vigor out of the work. A measured, calculated, intelligent rebellion is what often leads to greatness. This kind of rebellion may be intuitive at its core, but to perfect it takes more discipline than most of us possess. The idea is born a glorious miracle, and then we have to accept the daunting task of learning to nurture it into something fully realized. This is a labor of love.

Amy Ha

Amy Ha

Professional, Full-Time Copywriter and Author