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 and on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Want posts like these to arrive in your inbox weekly from Amy? Sign up here.

The Myth of the Real Deal

March 4, 2015 § 85 Comments

Well, if you can't impress me, you're never going to make it!

Well, if you can’t impress me, you’ll never make it!

A guest post from Jennifer Berney:

When I entered my MFA program in 2003, I hoped I might be a literary success in the making. Though I had only written a handful of short stories, I imagined that a two-year writing program would provide me with the structure I needed to complete a book-length manuscript, and after that I’d have it made. I’d find an agent and land a publishing contract. I might not make the bestseller list right away, but I’d have a steady, respectable career. At the time, this seemed like a reasonable dream.

Surely I was the kind of student that Ryan Boudinot writes about in his recent essay in The Stranger, “Things I Can Say About MFA Programs Now That I No Longer Teach in One,” in which he groups his former students into two camps: the readers and the Real Deal:

The vast majority of my students were hardworking, thoughtful people devoted to improving their craft despite having nothing interesting to express and no interesting way to express it. My hope for them was that they would become better readers.

Either you have a propensity for creative expression or you don’t…The MFA student who is the Real Deal is exceedingly rare, and nothing excites a faculty adviser more than discovering one. I can count my Real Deal students on one hand, with fingers to spare.

Though I desperately wanted to be the next “Real Deal” in 2003, it’s clear to me that I would have fallen into Boudinot’s earnest-but-uninteresting category, the type of student who should be reading instead of writing.

The title of Boudinot’s essay suggests that he will reveal unspoken truths, and yet his essay does little more than reflect an elitist mythology that is far more toxic to our writing programs than students who don’t care to read all 1,079 pages of Infinite Jest. While it is certainly true that “writers are not all born equal,” it is odious to assert that

a) a select few students are talented enough to write


b) Ryan Boudinot himself or any other writing teacher is capable of identifying who those students are.

I teach creative writing at a two-year community college and every year at least a dozen of my students enter my classroom with dreams of their own. They want to make a living telling stories about their drinking buddies, or they want to be the next J.K. Rowling, or they plan to attend the Iowa Writers Program some day. They arrive in my classroom with the same naivete I brought to my own MFA program over a decade ago, and they want to know if they might be the next Real Deal. Sometimes they ask this indirectly with the looks on their faces, or by showing up to my office hours every week. Sometimes they come out and say: Do you think I’m good enough?

Luckily for me, I don’t have to answer that question. I am a teacher, not a gatekeeper.  I tell them all that writing is a lot of work, and that if they’re called to it then, absolutely, they should write.

Over and over again, students have proven to me that I cannot accurately judge anyone’s talent over the course of a quarter. I’ve had students write fragmented, cliché-ridden stories for eleven weeks and then somehow, through what appears to be a miracle but is more likely the result of diligence, present a portfolio of eloquent, succinct work. I’ve had students write compellingly about the relentless boredom of war, about being raised by meth addicts, about coming of age in the forest, always because these were stories they needed to tell.

It’s odd to me that Boudinot found that most of his students have “nothing interesting to express,” because in my experience the opposite is true. Every student has something to say that would be of interest to some group of readers.The challenge of teaching is to help them identify which of their stories need telling.

It’s true that of the MFA cohort I studied with, not a single one of us has become the next literary superstar. Not one of us has a book on the bestseller list. Not one of us has won a National Book Award or a Pulitzer. Plenty of us have moved on to parenthood and day jobs, and many of us have given up on being full-time writers, but nearly all of us continue to write and publish. Collectively, we’ve published novels and poems and memoirs; we’ve published essays and blog posts and op-eds. Though we may have grown up and revised our definitions of success, we remain committed to the work of telling stories.

Much has been made in recent years about the perceived glut of MFA programs in the U.S., as if the world has too many writers, as if only a select few have a right to be taught and be heard. But what happens when students walk into the classroom and their teacher is scouting for the next Real Deal? How does the teacher decide who is Real and who is not, and who does he privilege, who does he silence in the process?


Jennifer Berney is a queer mama, writer, and teacher. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Nailed, and Mutha Magazine, among other places. She lives in Olympia, Washington, and blogs at Goodnight Already. You can find her on Twitter @JennBerney.

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