When I was in high school, I starred in a production of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, a delightful comedy that called for the annoying character I was playing to be put in an Egyptian sarcophagus and carried off stage, much to the delight of the cheering audience. I thought the elaborate gold spray-painted box was beautiful and I was thrilled at the thought of being lifted by several a strong, cute boys – until they put me in it. I don’t know why it never occurred to me how dark it would be in a closed box, and how terrifyingly out of control I would feel in there. As I was turned over until the box was perpendicular to the floor and then carried turbulently above it, I broke out in a cold sweat – I had no way of knowing where I was or how much longer I would be in that thing. I screamed, but everyone thought it was part of my performance, so I beat on the lid and begged to be let out, but it only made people think I was a brilliantly committed actress. It wasn’t until the guys had carried me backstage and carefully placed me upright that the door was swung open and I came tumbling out, gasping for air, tears streaming down my face. My kind drama teacher calmly explained that I was experiencing claustrophobia and that it would pass as soon as I took a few deep breaths. She then wisely had the prop people drill a few holes in the sarcophagus so that I could see out, giving me an illusion of control and a sense of place that enabled me to bear the three minute confinement, and thankfully the remaining performances were incident free. But I learned a valuable lesson that day: I hate being put in a box.
So imagine my surprise when I discovered just last week that I have been putting myself in a box for years. I was at lunch with an executive talking over potential projects we might work on together when he told me that what he was really in the market for was a good female-driven thriller. I smiled politely and told him, “Sorry, I’m not a thriller kind of girl. I’m more of a lighthearted rom/com and inspirational drama girl.” He looked at me for a moment and then said quite plainly, “I don’t accept that.” I half choked on a Brussels sprout as he went on to tell me that I was a great writer and as such I should be able to write anything I set my mind to. And then he added the real kicker, “Why are you trying to limit yourself?” In that moment, he didn’t bother drilling a few holes in my self-built sarcophagus; he blew the lid right off.
On the way home I tried to recall when I had constructed that little box that I had been writing in and I suddenly remembered a moment in the first creative writing class that I took in college. I had poured my heart into a dramatic story titled For Better or Worse about the tragic failure of a marriage (very heady stuff for a freshman). When the professor handed the paper back to me, he told me it was one of the funniest things he had read in a long time, and that I had a real gift for “tragi-comedy”. Apparently the mention of the spouses sharing their last bowl of ramen noodles was comedic gold. Thinking back on it now, I’m sure the self-seriousness must’ve been pretty funny, but at the time, I was crushed. So I decided somewhere deep inside that I would never try to be taken seriously in my writing again – that I would stick to lighthearted faire so that when people laughed at my work in the future, it would be because I wanted them to.
All these years later that little internal agreement had turned into: “I don’t do thriller. Or horror. Or serious drama.” Which led to a wonderful career that from time to time inexplicably careened into roadblocks. Until last week’s lunch when, just as that one fateful moment in class had sent me into the safety of a box of my own design, suddenly this one meeting had freed me from its artificial limitations. In fact, on the way home from the restaurant, I came up with two exciting thriller ideas before I had even pulled into the driveway!
The funny thing about boxes is that even if they are gold plated and beautifully adorned on the outside, on the inside it’s still a just a dark, stuffy place. I have always thought it was cool that the word “inspiration” comes from the same root word as “breath”…and it is no wonder that when we have the courage to open the door that fear has sealed shut, the fresh air can bring with it a world of new possibilities.
Has fear of being laughed at or judged ever kept you from doing or trying something you’ve always wanted to? Have you put limitations on yourself, or allowed others to? I challenge you this week to step outside your box in some way that scares you. Talk to that cute girl at work who you think is “out of your league”; if you have a great voice but have never stepped outside the shower, find somewhere public to sing; start that novel you’ve been thinking about for years; and if you’ve got great legs, for heaven’s sake, go buy a short skirt and flaunt ‘em!