The Power of Constraints to Unlock Creativity

October 12, 2022 § 24 Comments

By Amy Goldmacher

It’s my dedicated writing time. I’m at my desk, coffee next to me. It’s quiet. A blank document is open in front of me. 

Nothing happens.

Sound familiar?

Frustrated with the lack of words I got on the page, this June I participated in the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge: to write an original short story of 1000 words max within 48 hours using the assigned genre, location, and object. 

By the deadline, I had a short story in the spy genre that took place in a fighter jet where a rubber band makes an appearance.

Why is it that I find it so hard to write when I give myself space and time, but when given constraints, I can produce content?

As it turns out, there is brain science behind the power of constraints. Gina Kammer, a freelance editor and author specializing in science fiction and fantasy, says 

“Constraints allow us to be more creative because they prompt us to make more unique connections to problem solve than we’d otherwise make. Without limits, we stick to safe, familiar pathways that actually allow for less creative combinations of ideas/components. But with limits, we have a few unlikely meshing components to play with and can’t simply follow the habitual connection pathways.”

We can see the power of constraints in action in some recent reads:

Helen Phillips, after struggling with writing her book, applied a constraint:    

“I gave myself the constraint that each story had to be 340 words. It can be anything else that it wants to be, but it needs to be 340 words. And I found that very liberating, even though it’s a ridiculous constraint, because I gave myself total liberty within it.” Those stories became her debut book, And Yet They Were Happy.

Aaron Angello wrote a collection where each piece riffs on one word from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29.

Maria Romasco Moore found a stash of old photos in a Whitman’s Sampler box at an antiques market – and created a coherent story out of them.  

Constraints WORK.

Note that you can apply constraints to fiction, nonfiction, and anything in between. The examples above actually cross genres, even if they are labeled one or another.

Here are some types of constraints you can play with – choose one or more at a time: 

  • A form 
  • A word count
  • A time limit
  • A topic
  • A theme
  • An object
  • A location
  • A work of art
  • A first line/A last line
  • A character/historical figure
  • A situation
  • A color
  • A word that must be present/A word that cannot be used
  • A syllable count
  • A selection of random words
  • Use only one sense
  • Imitate the style/syntax/phrasing of another writer

Now combine in interesting and unusual ways:

Constraints can be freeing! I think of constraints like a thundershirt for an anxious dog: they are a something to rub up against that provides a constant, reassuring container  that ends up “calming all types of anxiety, fear, and over-excitement issues.” (This is not an endorsement for thundershirts (and I don’t have a dog); it’s a metaphor!) 

Helen Phillips also says: 

“The circumstances of everyone’s life are a constraint. How much time you have, how much money you have, how much energy you have. And you have to work with that. The fact that you have constraints doesn’t mean you can’t be a writer, or that you aren’t a writer.”

I take her statement as permission to work within what is available to me instead of fighting against it, and I think writers with real-world constraints (family, work, health, etc.) can use their schedules to their advantage.

Which constraints in what combination will unlock something new and fun right now? I discovered I feel most creative while reading others’ works. So I created a new constraint for myself: during my set writing time, I pick a not-yet-read book from my to-be-read shelf and read a chapter or two… and then write whatever is inspired by what I read.

__

Amy Goldmacher is an anthropologist, a writer, and a book coach. She is the winner of the 2022 AWP Kurt Brown Prize in Creative Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New York Times, Essay Daily, The Gravity of the Thing, Five Minute Lit, and elsewhere. She can be found at amygoldmacher.com and on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Want posts like these to arrive in your inbox weekly from Amy? Sign up here.

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§ 24 Responses to The Power of Constraints to Unlock Creativity

  • Thanks for sharing these constraint ideas. In my teaching, I used boundaries (constraints) to trigger creativity in young writers. The constraint became their sandbox, which allowed them freedom to play and use their imagination. It’s time for the teacher to build her own sandbox.

  • amandalerougetel says:

    Totally agree that constraints can free the creative flow of ideas. If dedicated writing time is one, then layering in a second such as the reading you do, Amy, from your TBR shelf is another. I wonder how many layers of constraint a person could work with!

  • Yesterday I vowed I would not write. I would take a day off and just do anything else. Then I picked up a book at the library and went across the street to a sunny park and opened up Hilary Mantel’s Giving Up the Ghost. Such rich language and expression. By the time I was finished with a dozen pages I could not help myself, and I just had to write!
    Thank you for all the ideas. I know this (constraint) to be true, I just never saw the words for it, or had so many suggestions.

  • Heidi Croot says:

    Thundershirt writing! Love it. Thanks for this inspiration. A beloved writing instructor once had us choose a vowel and then write for 20 minutes without using it. Holy moly. Fun, infuriating, productive.

  • […] The Power of Constraints to Unlock Creativity […]

  • I love assignments: Use a one-syllable word that can be both noun and verb. [tie/tie, run/run, plate/plate] That’s from Molly Gloss.

    • Amy Goldmacher says:

      I’ll have to try this one! Adding it to the list.

    • Grace Mattern says:

      I particularly appreciate a deadline or assignment as a constraint. The IG 100 day project got me creating every day this past winter. Though it’s mostly visual artists, it can be used to push activity in any genre. The trick is to pick something you can do every day (5 minutes of writing, a quick collage, which is what I did, a poem, a sentence) and then post it. The posting creates accountability to yourself. Assignments work to get me to my desk. What happens once I get there is up to me.

  • Diana says:

    Our writers’ group uses prompts which are the same as constraints. It is a way of giving the imagination a starting point and voila…watch what happens. We use sentences from books or random words, pictures and/or objects. We found it valuable for fiction as well as memoir writing. Thank you for the reminder.

    • Amy Goldmacher says:

      I love this idea. In a recent workshop, Kristen Paulson-Nguyen suggested taking sentences from Twitter or news headlines too!

  • youngv2015 says:

    I love how you explained this concept!

    • Amy Goldmacher says:

      Thank you so much!

      • Vickie says:

        In 2020, I took a writing class that used the concept you talk about in your essay. I wrote a story, but it needed lots of work. But something in the story and the relationship between the two women and the constraints that I’d set up spoke to me, so I kept working on the story. Then I submitted it to lots of places. I received many rejections and two, we “long listed this but decided against it.” Today I received an email that it has been accepted for publication.

  • Maureen Helen says:

    Thank you for the idea of working within constraints, Amy, and for the list to which you are adding. I’m currently working within the constraints of place and links between characters. Now I’ve read this article, I can see that my self-imposed ‘constraints’ are actually an exciting creative game to play with myself and to share with readers. Exciting! Love it!

  • […] on the Brevity blog, Amy Goldmacher extols “The Power of Constraints to Unlock Creativity” (to me, the constraints function a lot like […]

  • Kyalo says:

    Creativity at its best. I love the explanation

  • […] The Power of Constraints to Unlock Creativity at BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • […] I want to thank Felicia Schneiderhan, a wonderful and kind teacher, and Lake Superior Writers. In January 2021, I wrote the rough draft for “How to Keep a House” in a class called “Rules of Engagement” with Felicia, which was sponsored by Lake Superior Writers. We had to decide on five rules for our story before we started writing it. After we started writing, we could bend or change our rules if something wasn’t working. At first, having a set of rules before I had a real story idea was frustrating. Then it morphed into a creative process that I embraced. I began to like my characters and their story, so I kept revising. For an interesting take on this process read “The Power of Constraints to Unlock Creativity” by Amy Goldmacher on Brevity Blog. […]

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