• Gina Greenlee, Author

The Box, Wild Things and Formula 5

Updated: Mar 15, 2019


◊ ◊ ◊

Before you can think out of the box,

you have to start with a box.

Twyla Tharp

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The Box

In her book, The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life, renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp writes:

“There are separate boxes for everything I’ve ever done. If you want a glimpse into how I think and work, you could do worse than to start with my boxes. 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 commitment. The simple act of writing a project name on the box means I’ve started to work. The box makes me feel connected to a project. It is my soil. I feel this even when I’ve back-burnered a project; I may have put the box away on a shelf, but I know it’s there…Most important, though, the box means I never have to worry about forgetting…I don’t worry about that because I know where to find it. It’s all in the box.”

With my Formula 5 Batch Writing System, manuscript folder templates are my version of Twyla Tharp’s box. It’s how I draft my way into a writing project. It means the work has begun. Even if at the moment the idea is not much more than a wisp of a thing, with manuscript folders in place, the project is alive and I can begin the feeding.

Here’s how I organize manuscript folders:

  • In my “Documents” folder is one called, “Books.”

  • Inside the “Books” folder are topic folders such as “Writing,” “Productivity,” “Health,” “Business” and “Inspirational,” among others.

  • Inside each topic folder are numbered batches called, “Next 1,” “Next 2,” “Next 3” and so on. They represent the order in which I will advance each batch. I have as many as 20 batches in a single topic folder.

  • In the “Writing” books folder are 5 numbered “Next” folders.

  • Inside each of those 5 numbered “Next” folders are the titled folders for each of the 5 books in the batch.

Using the “Writing” books folder as an example, the taxonomy looks like this:

Documents→Books→Writing→Next 1→Cookin’ the Books, Prolific Without Pain, Formula 5, Purse Prompts, Write Walk Don’t Talk.

Each titled book folder contains:

  • a dated folder for each writing session in which I’ve plopped 44 numbered chapters;

  • an archive folder into which I slide each dated folder at the end of a writing session;

  • template documents for cover, outline, end matter.

Footer content for the templated 44 chapters:

  • Book title

  • Chapter number

  • Session date

  • Page number

With Formula 5, capturing this content in the footer is hugely important: with batch system writing I’m working in multiple chapters within one book, and across several others. This living structure operates as both a filing (active and archive) and operational system. Concrete example – entering content from one manuscript folder into 15 different chapters of 8 different books:

  • With one glance, the footer allows me to apply the same content across multiple books at the same writing stage (idea accumulation) with no confusion and thereby, distraction.

  • The content is there whenever I get back to it. And “there” is the same organizational system, the same “box” for each book.

  • I’ve created the assembly line once. For each new idea, all I do is flip the switch and start it up again.

Chapter footer dates mean no confusion if ever I need consult an earlier version of the project. Too, on occasion, I might be looking at slightly different versions of the same content. Version tracking makes it easy to identify which one I want.

◊ ◊ ◊

As I accumulate artifacts for writing ideas, here’s a sample of what I toss in my folders over time:

  • Quotes from books, magazines, blogs, movies, interviews.

  • Seemingly “random” thoughts that pop into my head throughout the day; often they connect organically to an existing writing project.

  • Song lyrics.

  • Videos.

  • A factoid that captures my interest and subsequent research.

  • Conversations I’ve had.

  • Conversations I wish I had.

  • Those I’ve overheard.

  • Plays, movies, books, fashion, visual art of any kind.

  • Colors, smells, sounds, time of day.

  • Anecdotes.

  • Process diagrams and models.

  • Images that resonate.

  • Memories – cognitive and visceral.

  • Dreams.

◊ ◊ ◊

Creativity is more about taking the facts, fictions,

and feeling we store away and finding

new ways to connect them.

Twyla Tharp

◊ ◊ ◊

Wild Things

“The box contains your inspirations without confining your creativity,” Tharp writes. “[Author/illustrator] Maurice Sendak (Where The Wild Things Are) has a room that’s the equivalent of my boxes, a working studio that contains a huge unit with the flat pullout drawers in which he keeps sketches, reference materials, notes, articles. He works on several projects at a time, and he likes to keep the overlapping materials out of sight when he’s tackling any one of them. Other people rely on carefully arranged index cards. The more technological among us put it all on a computer. There’s no single correct system. Anything can work, so long as it lets you store and retrieve your ideas – and never lose them.”

Formula 5

Having no organization for your ideas is to court frustration with, and possible derailment of your writing projects. Ideas are as accessible as plucking leaves from a tree-lined street. And, as Stephen King is often quoted, “Talent is a common as table salt.” From songwriters and choreographers to novelists and screenwriters, those who have mastered and prolifically produce their craft do so, in part, because they know how to organize their output.


Formula 5:

Idea Generation = Readiness + Containers


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