how limits can liberate
The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.
attributed to Orson Welles
Want to strike fear into a writer’s heart?
Tell them to write a story about anything. No guidelines, no limits!
There’s only one thing more scary than a blank page – a blank page and a totally free hand.
That’s because we are easily overwhelmed by too many choices. But isn’t more choice a good thing?
The Tyranny of Choice
The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.
Suppose you want to buy a jar of honey. On your way home from work you stop to fill your car. The filling station has just two kinds of honey so you pick one, job done.
But if you go to a major grocery store like Tesco they carry thirty-seven kinds of honey. Now you have to weigh many more options. Do you prefer clear or organic or lavender honey? It’s all too much so you end up grabbing the closest jar – or nothing at all.
Researcher Barry Schwartz calls this choice overload. Choice overload leads to picking the default rather than consider options, decision fatigue, and choice avoidance.
Making a choice requires energy, and if you’re already tired or depleted from too many prior choices you’ll either avoid the choice or go for the easiest option. This is death to creativity.
Creativity is about connecting things, but it’s also about solving problems in novel ways.
Constraints help you innovate without having to consider every option.
My writing group has an exercise called Hot Pen. One person opens a novel to a random page, another chooses a random number, and the nearest noun or verb on that page becomes the one word prompt. We then have ten minutes to write a story based on that word.
Scary, yes, but the variety of stories is always amazing. It’s surprising how each writer finds a different angle within a very small space. How can you limit your options to release more creativity?
Problems are hidden opportunities, and constraints can actually boost creativity.
Constraints are good for creativity and can be set up in different ways.
- Time – a deadline to force completion or a target to hit
- Subject matter – writing to a set theme or prompt
- Resource – limited budget, materials, or word count
Try these practical ways to get started.
- Setting time limits – the Pomodoro technique is essentially a rolling set of mini-deadlines.
- Using prompts as a starting point – try this random prompt generator.
- Work with limited forms like one hundred word drabbles or sonnets.
Once you’ve made a choice, stick with it. There will always be other options out there. Your job is to get started and then go on until the end, because only completed work can be edited, and only edited work can be perfected.
These techniques are useful to overcome inertia at the start of a writing session. Once you begin, you’ll find it easier to jump into your main project.
Sometimes, too many choices make us anxious. Then, we need a box as a starting point. It needs to be small enough that it doesn’t paralyse with too much possibility – yet big enough that imagination can stretch its wings and fly.
Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.
(first published by Publishous on Medium 5 June 2019)