Creative Paradox: Writers Who Think “Inside” the Box

Tess Callahan | September 2017

Creative Paradox: Writers Who Think “Inside” the Box by Tess Callahan, September 2017

From Miranda to Murakami, discerning writers reject the cliché: “think outside the box.” Instead, they custom-make boxes and wedge themselves inside. Like a kid in a playground, a hungry imagination expands by having boundaries to push against. Our most innovative writers intuit this secret: creativity relishes nothing more than a pair of Houdini handcuffs.

Take Jennifer Egan. She hated Twitter. So what did she do? In the face of intense aversion, she challenged herself to construct an entire short story in a series of tweets. Her delicious dare was to create a narrative wedded to form, voice that sprang organically from the limitations of 140 characters. The resulting masterpiece, “Black Box,” tweeted and published by The New Yorker, begins with six succinct text boxes:

People rarely look the way you expect them to, even when you’ve seen pictures.

The first thirty seconds in a person’s presence are the most important.

If you’re having trouble perceiving and projecting, focus on projecting.

Necessary ingredients for a successful projection: giggles; bare legs; shyness.

The goal is to be both irresistible and invisible.

When you succeed, a certain sharpness will go out of his eyes.1

Egan has barely touched Twitter since. She doesn’t need to. She has deftly moved on to the next prickly aversion to tackle.

Mary Oliver enjoys a challenge, too. In an interview with Krista Tippitt, she revealed the secret of her famous poem “Wild Geese” is that it originated from an exercise in end stops. 2 By creating a piece in which nearly half the lines end with a period, Oliver was trying to show a friend how end stops, as opposed to enjambment, give the reader an emphatic sense that the poet has stated something definite. Oliver was so focused on demonstrating the effect of the construction to her friend that she hardly thought about what she was actually writing. The poem opens:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.3

By busying her conscious brain with technique, Oliver allowed her intuition the space it needed to spring the poem free.

In the introduction of Wind/Pinball, Haruki Murakami describes how he discovered his unique style by first writing in English, his second language, which forced him to use simpler words and constructions. Can anything be more limiting? He then “transplanted” (not translated) those lines into Japanese. In the process, a new style of Japanese emerged that was entirely his own.

Now I get it, I thought. This is how I should be doing it. It was a moment of true clarity when the scales fell from my eyes.4

Any reader of George Saunders can see he revels in testing himself. The idea for Lincoln in the Bardo germinated years ago while driving by the cemetery in which Willie Lincoln is buried. Saunders learned that after the burial, Abraham Lincoln returned to his son’s crypt in the middle of the night to cradle the decaying body. Well, Saunders thought, there’s something I could never write about. Voila! The gauntlet was thrown. As if an unimaginable topic were not daunting enough, Saunders gave himself a logistical challenge by combining seemingly incongruous genres: firsthand nonfiction reports of historical events and fantastical fictional elements. The novel, largely narrated by ghosts, is contextualized by eyewitness diary accounts such as:

The night passed slowly, morning came, and Willie was worse.
                                                     Keckley, op.cit.5

Even Saunders thought this couldn’t be done. That’s what hooked him.

Like Saunders, Lin Manuel Miranda didn’t hesitate to toss disparate things into the blender; in his case, hip-hop and American history. After reading historian Ron Chernow’s biography, Alexander Hamilton, Miranda constructed his own magician’s box. If Shakespeare found freedom in the straitjacket of iambic pentameter, Miranda found it in transmuting the voices of the founding fathers into rap. The play opens with Aaron Burr posing a question to the audience:

How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
Spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?6

A strangely harmonious clash of content and form, Hamilton cracks open our notions of what a musical can be.

As a creative writing teacher, I find the most restrictive assignments—the ones students gnash their teeth over—invite the most inventive work. Many of these self-imposed shackles are techniques I borrow from traditional visual arts training, such as copying exercises, limited palettes and timed sketches. So as not to be a hypocrite, I subject myself to the same restraints I offer my students.

I used to be a slow writer. On the book jacket of my first novel, Bob Shacochis wrote, “heaven only knows how long we must wait for another book from Callahan.” Alarmed by the idea of taking another ten years to write a book, I challenged myself last year to complete a 300 page rough draft in three months. To tighten the screws, I decided the entire novel would take place in only seven days.

The dare triggered an avalanche. Three months later, half a mountain had careered down. I was forced to work in a new way, first creating a broad stroke of the entire novel, like an under-painting, before briskly building up color across the canvas. The process was fast, disorganized, and out of control—not my style. Until it was.

The daily hamster wheel of “if only” tells me that if I had more hours, more resources and fewer obstacles, I’d have published ten novels by now. But that’s a lie. Studies show wild chickadees that have to forage for limited food have bigger brains than captive ones who are fed, so to speak, on silver platters.1 The birds with unlimited food never have the chance to be, in the lyrics of Miranda, “young, scrappy and hungry.” Captive chickadees don’t compel us. Writers like Egan, Oliver, Murakami, Saunders and Miranda embrace the wild dare. How about you?


Tess Callahan is the author the novel April & Oliver (Grand Central Publishing/USA, Random House/UK). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times Magazine, AGNI, Narrative Magazine, NPR’s “Three Books” series, the Best American Poetry blog, and Writer’s Digest. A TEDx speaker on creativity, she coordinates the Creative Writing Program at Newark Academy in New Jersey.


  1. Jennifer Egan, “Black Box” The New Yorker (June 4 & 11, 2012), 85-97.
  2. “Mary Oliver: Listening to the World,” On Being with Krista Tippitt, accessed October 15, 2015,
  3. Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese” in Dream Work (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986), 14.
  4. Haruki Murakami, Wind/Pinball: Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball (New York: Vintage International, 2016), XIV.
  5. George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo (New York: Random House, 2017), 21.
  6. Lin Manuel Miranda, Hamilton: Vocal Selections (New York: Hal Leonard Corporation, 2016), 6.

No Comments