Outside the Box:

Nurturing Fresh Ideas


As writers we are frequently asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” Although usually expressed with genuine interest, the question is thoroughly off the mark. Ideas are not discovered at a “where”, but rather through action. We are also frequently told, “You need to try thinking outside the box.” One way to do this is to actively step outside our box–look outside our genre and outside writing for guidance and inspiration. Two of my favorite books on the action and play of creating are by a jazz violinist and a cartoonist for THE NEW YORKER. My third favorite source or activity that nourishes “outside the box” thinking is exploring books, websites and blogs that focus on the visual arts. A favorite recent discovery is the work of a photographer who had a create deal of fun drawing new realities for dead flies. Trust me. You’ll see.

FREE PLAY: IMPROVISATION IN LIFE AND ART by Stephen Nachmanovitch is a mega-multi-vitamin for anyone in the arts. My copy bought in 1993 has been highlighted in multiple colors over the years and its margins continue to record new thoughts and impressions. Sample quote: “Practice gives the creative processes a steady momentum, so that when imaginative surprises occur they can be incorporated into the growing, breathing organism of our imagination.”

THE NAKED CARTOONIST by Robert Mankoff is a rich blend of humor, reflections on creativity, and specific exercises to stretch one’s thinking. Sample quote: “…boredom is your creative friend. When you’re bored, you seek stimulation. If you are denied external stimulation, you’re forced to make do with what’s in front of you.”


Photographer Mangus Muhr’s witty creations that began with dead flies demonstrate the power of both imagination and context. A seemingly nothing becomes quite something once we give it a relative place in the world.


If Muhr can create so many different contexts for a dead fly, we have the same scope of possibilities for any character or sliver of story that captures our imagination. If, that is, we stay active: asking questions, playing with juxtapositions, and forever leaping outside the box.


As Robert Mankoff says, “Getting ideas is like getting a loan. If you already have money, it’s easy to get more. Likewise, if your mind is already stocked with ideas and associations, more are likely to come your way.”

Cossack Dance

Related Books & Sites to Explore

DEAD FLY ART by Mangus Muhr. (photographer) http://muhrgalleri.area81.se/#11.27

FREE PLAY: IMPROVISATION IN LIFE AND ART by Stephen Nachmanovitch. Tracher, 1991.

THE NAKED CARTOONIST by Robert Mankoff. Black Dog & Leventhal, 2002.