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The day I was brought home from the hospital, much to the surprise and chagrin of my older-generation parents, they belatedly realized they’d neglected to prepare for my immenient arrival and thus did not have a crib. (In their defense, I was supposedly two months early, even though I weighed eight pounds.) I spent my first week in a cardboard box.
But even after I outgrew the box and was given a crib, I never outgrew my fascination for boxes. I’d sit in the smaller ones and “drive”, usually some fast sporty car. I loved to put clothespins on the edges and zoom-zoom. I would play in my box-car all day long. I’m telling you, the X-box generation does not know what it’s missing.
I also loved big refrigerator boxes. And the ones that stoves came in. I would turn these monster cardboard dreams into playhouses and castles. I’d cut out windows—or I’d get mom or dad to do so—and I’d color them. I’d hang my blankets off them for privacy and hide in them. Yes, I learned early there is a lot of stuff you can do with a box if you just look at it for a while and figure out the possibilities inside it.
After awhile, I outgrew boxes and the imagination that comes with having them. I probably discovered boys. That seems most likely. And I never met any really cool ones who wanted to play in my box with me. *droll look* So I moved onto other hobbies. Like watching TV.
Now, I’m not a huge watcher of Sponge Bob Squarepants (though I can sing the words to the theme song and have been known to do this in grocery stores if I walk past the pineapple section. “Who lives in a pineapple under the sea? Sponge Bob Squarepants!”) Though the few times I’ve caught episodes, it has the sheer stupidity of The Three Stooges with a moral or theme that’s more profound than the Dalai Lama. The absolute best episode I watched featured Sponge Bob receiving his TV by express order. He was so excited—it was a huge TV—and Squidward, the cranky neighbor, wasn’t a bit excited. He never is, but you can’t blame him. If I had a perky neighbor like Sponge Bob, I think I’d have the same look on my face.
Sponge Bob takes out his TV from the box, tosses it aside like so much garbage, and proceeds to crawl into the now-empty box with Patrick. It was the box, you see, that he found to be the most important. Squidward thinks Sponge Bob is a headcase, but since this is not news to anyone, he merely asks Sponge Bob if he can have the TV. Sponge Bob says, “Take it!” Squidward practically skips home with his free dumpster diving prize. He sets it up in his living room; admires the large screen and high-definition; and starts to watch a show. He is interrupted by surround sound noise coming from outside: from Sponge Bob’s empty box. What is going on?
Squidward, being unable to help himself, investigates. He’s hearing gunshots, cowboys, Indians, war whoops. There’s a battle going on. He pulls up the lid to the box, and nothing. Sponge Bob and Patrick blink up at him in innocent confusion, looking exactly like two cartoon characters sitting in a plain cardboard box like a couple of idiots. Squidward even makes himself say, “I thought I heard a fight going on. What are you doing?” And Sponge Bob gladly tells Squidward that he’s using his IMAGINATION. He makes a gesture with his hands like a rainbow. (I only explain that because my friend Holly and I like this episode so much, sometimes we greet each other by quoting this line, complete with gesture and vapid Sponge Bob expression.)
Squidward doesn’t believe in ridiculous things like IMAGINATION. He stomps off in a huff; but the sounds and such continue, and each time he investigates, Sponge Bob gives the IMAGINATION speech. Finally Patrick and Sponge Bob stop playing for the day and go home to go to bed. They leave the box outside; and Squidward, again unable to help himself, crawls in the box to give IMAGINATION a try. He’s very pleased and shocked when he finds out it works. Though unfortunately it’s really a garbage truck carting him off to the city dump—but whatever.
Now I only tell you this story because you’re undoubtedly surrounded by Squidwards. Everyone has a Squidward in their life. Your inner critic is a Squidward; your mother is probably a Squidward; Ms. Yount, my beloved high school teacher, is a Squidward. Most mean well; they’re only trying to keep your dreams lodged in reality, which as you and I know is the last place dreams need or should be. But don’t worry. You’re Sponge Bob. You believe in the cardboard box; and you see all the possibilities in it. You bring the cardboard box to life every day you go and make your mark in it. You have plenty of IMAGINATION.
Squidward will probably point out that cardboard boxes are generic and formulaic…and anybody can make a playhouse out of a cardboard box. Yes, but not everyone sees a playhouse in a cardboard box and therefore creates one. And yes, all playhouses start out with the same structure—that’s not a crime—that’s just structure. Your playhouse is uniquely you, even if it has the same four walls as the playhouse next door, because only you know where the windows go and how many rooms it has. Only you know what color to paint the walls and the curtains to hang. There is a supreme difference between basic structure and formulas even a kindergartener could do. After all, if anyone could truly write one of those formulaic, fill-in-the-blank MadLibs Romance Novels, then anyone would; but the fact remains only a small percentage ever finish writing any novel, formula or literary, because writing is hard. You have to be willing to put your trust in IMAGINATION. You have to be able to see the possibilities inside a cardboard box and turn it into a place somebody else would want to live in.
I bet you guys never thought you could learn anything from Sponge Bob and cardboard boxes, did you?
Okay, question time. Hopefully we all know I meant that although many romance writers use the ‘formula’ of Beauty & the Beast, or Cinderella, or the Ugly Duckling, et al, it’s our creative imprint that makes the structure our own story. What unique imprint do you bring to your cardboard box (i.e. what’s your writing strengths? Your writing voice?)? What cardboard box are you currently playing in? Are you having as much fun as Sponge Bob--or are you being more like Squidward?