The Liberating Power of Creative Constraints

by Brian on March 25, 2013

in Inspiration

Hiatus over.

I’ve had constraints on the mind lately. Time constraints, mostly, as I’ve been striving to take advantage of every opportunity that’s come along in recent months, plus train for a belt test, and contend with a bout of walking pneumonia in there somewhere. (Hint: The walking part is total b.s.) Which goes most of the way toward explaining the lull here.

But this inevitably makes me think of creative constraints, as well. Not as the enemy, but as an unlikely ally. Just as we narrow our focus to our highest priorities when time gets as pinched as the middle of an hourglass, and maybe even squeeze out better work under pressure, a limited pallet of creative options can actually be a helpful thing.

Paralysis By Paradox

If you’ve ever backed away from a decision because you couldn’t quite hack through the thicket of options to conclusively choose, then you’ve succumbed to a behavioral glitch dubbed the Paradox Of Choice. Or Paralysis By Choice, which I like better, because — spoiler alert — it tells you the end result.

It gelled as a theoretical given in 2000, after a famous jam study in which people could see their way clear to buying a jar of jam when they had 6 types to choose from, but 24 turned everyone into flustered, indecisive hand-wringers. Because jam, I’m sure we can all agree, is a serious commitment.

The theory has deservedly lost some luster since then, at least as a blanket model for how people tick. When was the last time you ran screaming from the cereal aisle, or went fetal at Starbucks? The reality is more nuanced: Some circumstances trigger the twitches, and some don’t.

But I’d be willing to bet that all of us have experienced this in a creative context. A project in which the open-ended blankness of our chosen medium has too many potential starting points (or paths down which to continue) that it leaves us stalled.

Portrait Of A Mad Waffler

You see this a lot in music. Especially with synthesizers. Technological aeons ago, early synths had to be programmed one sound at a time, with no memory recall. Now both hardware and software synths routinely come with hundreds, even thousands, of presets right there for instant access. And nobody can live with just one synth. You do the math.

With entire worlds of sounds at your fingertips, where do you begin? You can spend all your music-making time dialing through presets, weighing options, instead of actually making music. As a hobbyist who loves soundscaping — painting with sound, essentially — I’ve been there.

And that’s before I get to tweaking sounds to customize them, or programming from scratch.

The best way out of this quagmire I’ve found? Set rules. Whip up a group of sonic colors and stick with them. Establish the parameters early: one from this synth, one from that one, another from that library, etc. Decide quickly — say, 5 minutes tops to pick each one. Then make the most of them, as if they’re the only sounds in the world.

Eliminating the burden of choice as soon as possible really can move you past that place of paralysis.

As for more traditional songwriters, there’s a reason so many choose to rough out a song’s framework on acoustic guitar or piano. If the chords and melodies work well with such bare-bones instrumentation, then the musician knows she’s not hiding a weak song behind production tricks.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt … And Beyond

In some private photography lessons that my luv took a few years ago, the tutor had her begin by confining her shooting within our home. Not just a restricted space, but the environment with which she was most familiar.

Week after week of this.

She chafed at it, but there was a valuable purpose behind this: It forced her to take subjects whose everyday familiarity made them seem mundane, and stick with them long enough to start seeing them anew. To approach them from different angles and perspectives, imposing new juxtapositions.

Get used to doing that in the confines of home, and you’re much more likely to capture images that are uniquely your own once you carry this tendency back out into the world.

Strategic Myopia

All well and good for sound and vision, but how can these principles apply to the page? That’s up to you. You’re the one who gets to pick out your own set of handcuffs.

But here are a few ideas to get you thinking in that direction, whether as a spark for a single story, as a means to break through a block on a chapter, or just for a new challenge.

• Ever hear of a locked-room mystery? It’s typically a subgenre of detective fiction in which the crime, the unknowns, and the solution are all confined within a tight space from which nothing seemingly gets in or out. Give it a whirl, or adapt the format to a different kind of story.

• A lot can change in a single car ride. Find a way to wring the entirety of the human condition out of what happens inside that car.

• Rob a character of one or more key senses at the worst possible time. How do they process the world and what’s going on with the senses that are left?

• “Character is destiny,” said Flannery O’Conner. So forget about the contrivances of plot needs, and retrofitting characters to match what you think a story demands. Just start with interesting characters. Three, four, whatever. Know them well — speed-date them if you have to — then stick with what you know. No cheating, no changing. Maybe they’re so radically different from one another they’d never end up in the same place at the same time. Throw them together anyway and see what their shared destiny is.

• Work differently — more simply. Is your conduit of choice a computer? Trying the stripped-down approach of a pen and pad may alter your approach to anything from words to structure. It has mine, when I’ve done it, whether that’s been by choice or forced by circumstances. Entire novels have been written on cell phones. OK, that’s more of a Japanese thing, but still…

• Ditch your research. Or at least set it aside for a while. Research can be an invaluable part of storytelling’s nut-and-bolts, as you dig up details that will give your material the kiss of life. But it has a dark side. Research can also overwhelm you with options of what to use and where to use it. Before beginning my current novel-in-progress, I’d done so much research that I was left with no idea where to begin. It was like running around the outside of a stadium, unable to choose which entrance gate to use. It was only when I let all that go and focused instead on the characters that I could begin.

Doing The Most With What Little You Have

My all-time favorite lesson on the power of constraints comes from the legendary comedy troupe Monty Python. In speaking of the BBC TV show that gave them their foundation, this brief insight from John Cleese explains much: “If we’d had a budget, we would’ve only been mediocre.”

I love that.

Without production values to hide behind, the Pythons knew they were going to be standing there naked, which forced them to work harder on coming up with some of the funniest, most original, whacked-out stuff anybody had ever seen. It holds up amazingly well, too. Of this early body of work from the late 1960s and early ‘70s, very little seems dated. It’s timelessly goofy, with an infinite shelf life.

Proving that less really can lead to more.

[Photo by Konstantin Stepanov]

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

FZA April 1, 2013 at 3:53 pm

Great to see you back Brian.

I once read a great tip for getting started when the muse deserts you or if you simply cannot begin.

Read a short story or novel or screenplay or anything from a favourite author of yours that you have not read before and which you are enjoying. Then stop exactly halfway through and continue to write the rest of the story yourself.

I’ve tried it a few times, and the results have been mixed but gives a guaranteed page count at the end of the day. A couple of times, the story has been so different to the published version that you can effectively go back and change names and locations and have a completely brand new piece of work.

Brian April 2, 2013 at 6:33 pm

Thanks for the tip!

I’ve done something similar a few times, although not to the point of setting the author’s work aside for however long it takes to do my own. More like pausing a bit and brainstorming how I might proceed and finish. It can definitely be a worthwhile exercise.

Lee Thompson May 25, 2013 at 11:39 pm

Great stuff, Brian. Going to try some of those exercises. Thanks for the advice!

Brian May 28, 2013 at 9:54 am

I hope one or more sparks something for you that wouldn’t otherwise have come into being.

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