Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Beware the Boxes

No this isn’t a warning to avoid packages because of germs, toxins, or an irrational fear of UPS employees. It actually has very little to do with literal boxes. And here I go again into figurative land as I present my holiday get-together advice.

And I feel a disclaimer is in order. I am not a therapist, nor do I play one on TV. And I’ve been guilty of moving very far away and avoiding holiday get-togethers in the past. But since I’m currently at an airport about to head out to a holiday gathering, I’m feeling like almost an expert at this. Now, back to the boxes.... patterns and a little allusion to writing and character development.

I’d like to introduce you to the concept of people boxes. (And no, I’m not suggesting cramming the least-liked family member into a box in order to facilitate a peaceful/illegal holiday.) People boxes represent the way we see each other. Often from a very young age, families find ways of creating the people boxes to provide understanding of family members. And once created, those people boxes are often powerful and difficult to change. If in a person’s youth, they were a rebel, they might end up wearing the rebel box their entire lives, even though what they feel inside is anything but the image they wore in younger and wilder days. And the glamour box can be particularly difficult, for those who were stunning cheerleaders in their younger days, and now look like middle-aged, real people. The smart and driven people boxes can be difficult to live up to and end up making people never feel like they are good enough. No matter if the box is a positive or negative image, it can feel solid and static, even though we people are anything but.

People really do change. Some by choice and others because life changes them. We grow in ways that family might love or hate, but ultimately our own journeys are something that not even the closest of families can always understand. And when it comes to getting together, sometimes there can be a struggle because of out-dated people boxes.

And compounding problems are the patterns that once established have a life of their own. Mature, capable adults can suddenly become sniveling teenagers when around their parents and siblings. Siblings who are extraordinarily evolved people can be reduced to “I know you are, but what am I?” within seconds of reconnecting. And those Duran Duran pins that were stolen by a sibling seem to have left a gaping hole in a person, even though it happened more than twenty years ago. Stolen boyfriends, bigger Christmas gifts, disappointments, and words spoken years before become living things, all because of the power of patterns.

So, people boxes and patterns are the problems. And now a writerly solution. Every writer I’ve ever met or even heard of has been surprised by what their characters have done. Those moments when you see and hear what your character is doing and say, “Oh, you did not just do that.” I had a main character up and decide that the love interest I picked for him was simply not good enough and he went for the hotty-potatty bad girl. As much as I argued and whined, ultimately I had to let him be who he was and off he went with the baddy. Stephenie Meyer, in an interview I read a while back, mentioned that Edward’s dramatic actions at the beginning of New Moon completely took her by surprise, but she had to just give in and go on the ride. Which leads us to the writerly advice: let your family members be the characters that shock you, and roll with it. See where the new story takes you. I promise you that if you let go of the patterns and the people boxes, a real chance to get to know people for who they are now will be yours. And what do you really have to lose other than all that is tired and predictable. Life is a great adventure if we let it be. And people are the ever-present part of this adventure. Let them wow you and most of all be open to really seeing people for who they are, not where they come from, what they’ve done (both accomplishments and letdowns), or even the images they might want you to believe. Search for the truth and experience the only story that never really ends.

Quote for the Day from John Denver

"I'm leaving on a jet plane..."


DebraLSchubert said...

Beautiful, Julie. I vow to open up my people boxes and let the true personalities of the people I know and love shine through. Here's to all of us letting each other "be." Could there be anything greater to be thankful for?

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post! I agree with Deb - time to make sure we all keep our people boxes open. Nothing worse than stereotyping your family! Although maybe we should keep one box for the crazy relative... :)

Indigo said...

My character constantly astound me. I've learned to let them tell the story for me.

As for boxes. On an old blog I used to have the inscription, "Breaking out of the box people place me in." It was a reference to my deafness. I used to write in such a way, I allowed people to experience what it was like to be deaf through my experiences. I can't tell you how many times someone would comment they had no idea and I changed the way they saw my handicap.

Frankie said...

I'm gonna have to disagree here: I've stuffed my brothers physically into boxes, and found it entirely satisfying. I'd do it again. I might possibly wrap it in a ribbon with a bow and eveything, just for the holidays. In fact, I've found it SO important to maintain my "big brother box", that I've dedicated 19 years to judo. No, I'm keeping my big brother box; and Dennis is keeping his brown cardboard box. Now how he chooses to develop his personality in that dark, smelly box is no-nevermind to me, but he is most DEFINITELY going into that box.
One of my favorite parts? I'm now teaching kids how to stuff THEIR siblings into boxes. Ahhh... big brother judo: the box that keeps on boxing.

Julie said...


Glad you liked the post. It was wonderful seeing you over the holiday and meeting your amazing family. My BFF looks fabulous, living large in her rock star, agented writer limitless people box.

Love ya!

Julie said...


One emergency-crazy-relative people box shouldn't do much damage, I think. Thanks for commenting!

Julie said...


I love that you use your writing to open up unfamiliar worlds to people. I can't think of a better use for the writing gift. I know that through your blog and comments on mine, I am seeing a fuller vision of the world. Thanks so much for that!

Julie said...


Thank you for providing the voice of dissent (no one could do that better) and you completely cracked me up. And your comments make excellent subterfuge. My readers will think you are some kind of tough guy instead of one of the kindest, most loyal people I've ever known. The kind of guy who will show up to help my mom rearrange her furniture on a monthly basis. The kind of guy who helped me move about twenty time. And the kind of guy I know will always be there for me. There is absolutely no reason for you to need to break out of the people box your friends put you in, because it's just too wonderful.

Love ya always!

Tricia said...

I love this post, Julie, because it is so true. Not only am I boxed, but I am guilty of boxing as well. I need to experience loved ones in the real moments, not the role I gave them.

Sandra Leigh said...

Excellent advice, Julie (and you do have some interesting friends, don't you? ;>) ) I nodded my head as I read, having watched my characters get completely out of control during NaNoWriMo.

Do pop over to The Turtle when you have a moment - there's a little present waiting there - from me to you.

Julie said...


Thanks for the comment. I think we're all guilty of this at one point or another in our lives. I thought it was especially sad when I was a teacher and the negative spin reached a child's new teachers before that student could enter the room. There is something wonderful about a clean slate.

Julie said...


Thanks for stopping by the blog and thanks even more for my present. You made my day! And yes, my friend group is a little out there... in all the best ways. :)

Sharon Mayhew said...

...don't know when I'll be back again." I love this song, especially during times of stress...

I've spent my whole life living relatively near an airport. I was born near Heathrow in England...My Grandad was a manager of several hangers when he retired in the
1980's... Being near an airport always meant I could leave...

I love being at the airport...wondering what each person's story is. Is it a happy departure or arrival...is it a sad one... are secrets involved? Does her family know? Does she know about her family? So many questions? Who is he meeting? Why are they going there?

I love airports... :)Fun post.

Julie said...


I love airports much better than I like actually being on a plane. Your fondness for airports reminds me of my love for trains. Because when I was very little I was near a train track, I still sleep better when trains go by and now I have train tracks just behind my house (and love it).

Thanks for the comment!

Sharon Mayhew said...

I took my first real train ride (subways don't count) in July. I went from the north of England to the southern coast. It was wonderful. You see a whole different view of the world in a train. The only bad part was when the train broke down...we had no circulating air for about 45 minutes...and when I chased the snack guy and got my head stuck in the first class door...Still who else has gotten their head stuck in a door? I have my own special train story. :)