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.
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.
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:
- “For two months I combed Andrew Lang’s late-1800s fairy tales for sentences containing the word “ugly” or “beautiful”. I took the resulting sentences and created a new fairy tale, the kind of fairy tale I wish I could have read as a child.” (From Tommy Dean’s interview with Sage Tyrtle)
- Write an essay in the style of a piece in Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights, which is to say, one paragraph that describes a grievance in a highly specific, inventive, and vivid way, and a second paragraph that makes of that grievance something larger than the sum of its parts. (From Jeannine Ouellette’s Writing in the Dark workshop)
- Write an erasure piece – take any source and black out the text, leaving only scattered words and phrases that combine to create a new work (see Poets.org’s definition and examples; I gave it a try earlier this year).
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.