Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The book journal, part two: setting up a file box

In Chapter 5 of her 2003 book The Creative Habit, one of a handful of books that I re-read, award-winning dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp writes "Before you can think outside of the box, you have to start with a box." She then explains how each of her dances begins as a cardboard file box with a lid (the kind you buy at office supply stores and assemble yourself). "I write the project name on the box, and as the piece progresses I fill it up with every item that went into the making of the dance. This means notebooks, news clippings, CDs, videotapes of me working alone in my studio, videos of the dancers rehearsing, books and photographs and pieces of art that may have inspired me.... If you want a glimpse into how I think and work, you could do worse than to start with my boxes." One Broadway show can fill as many as twelve boxes. She cites other artists such as Maurice Sendak who have different but also organized systems, but she loves hers as order among the disorder.

She puts certain iconic things in each box, for example blue index cards with her stated goals for the project. She tries to make these goals simple and clear, such as Tell a story or make dance pay for the dancers. For the show Movin' Out (for which she won a 2003 Tony), she included the first line of the Iliad, "Sing to me muse of the rage of Achilles." She adds copies of movies or music that inspire her, notebooks that she fills with thoughts about the show, even meaningful tchotchkes. "That's how a box is like soil to me. It's basic, earthy, elemental. It's home. It's what I can always go back to when I need to re-group and keep my bearings. Knowing that box is always there gives me the freedom to venture out, be bold, dare to fall flat on my face."

I'm not exactly Twyla Tharp (she just received the Kennedy Center lifetime achievement honor). But I grew up with the idea of her, and I've paid attention since age nine when I first learned her name. So in honor of her, I started a file box for this book I'm writing in public. Books are more paper-based than dances, so I put red hanging files in it, and manila file folders carefully labeled (using the Brother P-touch 1180 labeler) as I begin to grow the materials for this new book. I also included the first of what will probably be several file cards for goals, blue just like hers. Upon the first one I wrote clearly: Tell a story.

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