The Benefits of Creative Limitations

3 Crushing

I never had writer’s block when I was in college. Assignments had a way of getting my imagination going. The more constraints professors put on my papers the more coherent they became. I found inspiration in limitations.

A minimum requirement of citations kept my essays informed. Word count caps prevented me from going off on tangents. A strict thesis kept me on topic. The clearer the criteria the more it felt like I was cheating.

I never hit a wall when my boarders were defined.

Time never slipped away when it was hanging heavy on me. That sense of urgency kept my creativity from running rampant. I didn’t have a moment to work out every idea in my head, so I didn’t have to.

The questions in my notebook were designed to prioritize which of my ideas were most important. I started with open ended ones to gage how I felt about a subject. I moved onto closed (yes or no) questions to see what facts I already knew. I wrote a list of supporting topics and used less than half.

Clarity was more relevant than totality.

These limitations helped me make major edits before I got started. When I graduated those parameters disappeared. I figured it’d be easier to write without the pressure of 17 credits hanging over my head. Turns out, it was a whole lot harder.

2. Walls Closing in

Freedom from Indecision 

When you have too many options it’s hard to decide on a single one.

It was easy for me to decide what movie I wanted to watch when I was limited to my old VHS library. Now, in the era of Netflix, I scan through thumbnail movie covers until it’s time to go to sleep. It was easy to decide what I’d be listening to on the way home from work when I only took three CDs. Now my iPod fits over two months of music.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice – Why Less is More says, “Too many choices produces paralysis rather than liberation, with so many options to choose from people find it very difficult to choose at all.”

This is especially true for writers coming up with fresh story ideas. We could write about anyone in any place in any time period. We could build a universe from scratch, come up with our own alien races with their own languages, and systems of government. Our only limit is our imagination, which can be a problem.

Writer’s block isn’t always a wall, sometimes it’s a fork in the road. A scarecrow mocks us, standing there scratching our heads.

“Some people go down the horror genre, others go down the comedy genre. Of course, some people do go both ways. Some people find success down one avenue then decide to go another way, afraid to pigeon hole themselves.”

I’ve gotten lost trying to go my own way. I’ve researched too many subjects, I bring in too many of my interests, and too many of my influences. When it comes to deciding on my next project, I can get really indecisive.

1. Sky is Falling

Long Live Deadlines

One of the best ways to get past writer’s block is to find limitations that force you to make quick creative decisions. Writers should be on the look out for short fiction collections that are taking submissions, not just to pad your resumé, but to push yourself to produce something in a timeframe.

Every November, writers pit themselves against the clock for National Novel Writing Month. The structure of the project forces them to think fast, to let their subconscious do the driving, instead of slowing down to consider all the notes their inner editors keep giving them.

Sometimes there’s more inspiration in the hour glass than the heavens. Sometimes the ticking clock is more moving than an orchestral arrangement. Sometimes Cronus is a better muse than Calliope.

It can be hard to find the discipline to keep artificial deadlines, especially when no one is awaiting our manuscripts. We could set up short term goals, like write two thousand words a day or write a chapter a week, but we’ll feel like failures when we come down with the flu and break our routines. These type of objective based goals can be easily derailed.

So how can we get the creative benefits of deadlines without that sense of urgency? By recognizing how deadlines force us to narrow our vision.

In college, my essays were usually the first ideas that came to mind. I didn’t have time to sift through my options. I’d get a premise and make it work. If my thesis didn’t hold up to the scrutiny of my research, then that’s what I’d report. I’d explain where my bias came from and why it was wrong.

These days, my blogging strategy is the same thing. I use a similar method for fiction. I ask myself what’s the “What if?” scenario my imagination keeps coming back to this week. That’s what I end up writing.

Too much contemplation can be a bad thing. When you maximize your possibilities you limit your ability to focus. When you give yourself the freedom to choose the best possible story, you waste good ideas by spending too much time considering the alternatives.

If inspiration has given you a pretty good premise, you’re better off flushing it out rather than brain storming until a better one comes along. Choosing the material shouldn’t be as much of a project as developing it.

10 thoughts on “The Benefits of Creative Limitations”

  1. I agree with every freaking thing in this post. Especially the part about writer’s block not being a wall, but rather a fork in the road. I think this might be the #1 reason I’m finding novels much harder to write than TV – no deadlines and no boss to approve/scrap path A versus path B, C or D. But I will take your advice and try to move on decisions faster. Thanks for a great post!

    1. Wow, you wrote for TV? So many questions. Dramas? Documentaries? Network? Cable?

      So much of my best work came from the twin punch combo of having a deadline and knowing I had a guaranteed audience who would be reading and critiquing my work.

      Glad you found some useful advice here. Thanks so much for reading and commenting.

      1. Yep, I wrote tween sitcoms and children’s animation. A great training ground to learn how to write, but my passion isn’t in kids TV, it’s in YA novels. So I’m trying to make that work now.

  2. So much truth in this post. Yesssss, sooooo many choices makes it harder to make decisions and when it comes to writing, having so many options and exploring too many ideas makes it difficult to know what path to choose. My mind goes off in so many directions at once and I have anxiety about making the wrong decision so sometimes I don’t decide at all or I just keep exploring when really I have everything I need.

    I love how you describe writer’s block as a fork in the road. I’ve never thought of those moments I am stalled in terms of the inability to rein in my imagination. Makes much sense.

    I found much value in this post. I need to stop stifling my subconscious and set it free, let it decide.

    Thanks! Great writing tips.

    1. I’m in the same boat. I’m always wondering if I’m committing to the wrong story, only to look back and wonder how much progressive I could have made if I wasn’t so indecisive. It’s probably my biggest problem as a writer. I envy other writer’s who’ve managed to wrap up two books while I’ve been kicking at the tires of one.

      Glad you found my tips useful. Thank you being such a loyal reader. It makes all this effort worth while.

  3. I like your comment about doing short fiction to create an immediate (submission) deadline. I’d forgotten that’s how many of us start out in college. Then of course we take it in to a workshop and watch the participants shred it. But you can always tell a workshopped piece. Flat.No bounce.

  4. I usually start with two choices, and a crippling inability to pick either one for fear it may be the wrong one. And then as I keep stalling myself, trying to choose, I end up spinning out more and more possibilities for myself until I have absolutely no idea what I should do. Usually what I end up doing is shoving that story into a dark drawer and working on something else. Choice is exhausting! haha XD

    Discipline and not being sure about my choices are definitely my biggest weaknesses when it comes to getting my writing done. So, thanks for this excellent post! ^-^

    1. Choices are exhausting. When I choose one idea over another, I find myself writing a synopsis of the idea I’m passing on, so I remember what it was if I ever feel like coming back to it.

      1. I also do that. ^-^ I have several notebooks with my ‘storyteller’ outlines scattered throughout.

        Although, generally, I don’t have problems with choosing an initial story idea. One usually calls me more than another. ^-^ Mostly I have problems with making big choices while I’m writing. Endings especially, if I don’t have an absolute clear picture of the end when I first come up with the idea then I tend to struggle as noted above. heh

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