“The imagination is unleashed by constraints. You break out of the box by stepping into shackles.” ― Jonah Lehrer
I do my best work when I am sat at my paper and book covered desk, with a glass of wine at hand, total freedom to write about whatever I want, no plans for the day, my music on shuffle playing an odd mixture of psytrance, folk and crybaby indie.
Actually, I don’t.
I do my best work when I am sat at my usual table in the library or my favourite coffee shop, with nothing but my laptop and notebook, drinking my usual black Americano (iced in the summer, hot for the other 11.5 months of the year), following a strict brief and listening to the same goddamn Conor Oberst playlist I hear maybe 100 times a week.
I follow a clear outline, usually written the night before and have all my research notes compiled into one document. I block everything distracting or work offline, turn off my phone and put headphones on to deter anyone from speaking to me.
My workflow is precise, pre-planned and it is rare for me to deviate from it. Raymond Chandler summed up his writing rules as such: “Write or nothing. I find it works. Two very simple rules, a. you don’t have to write. b. you can’t do anything else.”
For a long time, this confused me. I was raised with images of wild-haired creative geniuses in chaotic studies, following the music in their thoughts. I looked forward to cultivating my own study, with shelves of books, whiskey bottles, and a few cats. Except, it doesn’t work that way. For starters, I have learned that I should never, ever work when I am in reaching distance of books, cats or alcohol.
The idea that creativity requires boundless freedom is deeply flawed. After all, why do so many of our most beautiful art forms involve specific constraints?
A haiku involves 17 syllables over 3 lines, juxtaposing two images. Silent films used mise en scene to convey a narrative through visuals alone. Folk music often recycles the same simple lyrics and melodies (such as House of The Rising Sun and Stand By Me) countless times.
There is a story about the genius Dr. Seuss, one of the first authors whose work I ever read (albeit in Hebrew, my first language.) His publisher made a bet that Seuss couldn’t write a book only using the following 50 words:
a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.
Seuss won the $50, and the world received the gift of ‘Green Eggs and Ham.’ All 200 million copies of it. Oh, and I spent my entire childhood looking for green eggs every time I went to a supermarket.
There are endless other instances of wonderful work springing from strict limitations, and of artists who sought them out.
David Bowie used a random phrase generator to construct a framework for many of his songs. Georges Perec produced Exercises in Style by rewriting one mediocre scenario 99 times, then stringing them together. Conor Oberst recorded his early songs on a cassette player in his parents’ basement with minimal resources, resulting in music which encapsulates a certain sort of beautiful, pure, dark naivety. Joseph Paxton envisioned his design for the Crystal Palace based on the limitations imposed by the glass manufacturing capabilities of the time. Lars Von Trier and his contemporaries used the artificial constraints of their ‘Dogma 95’ manifesto to make innovative films. Frank Lloyd Wright wrote: 'The human race built most nobly when limitations were greatest and, therefore, when most were required of imagination in order to build at all.'
Constraints are valuable because creativity is inherently chaotic.
There are so many options, ideas and potential projects bouncing around in our minds. Faced with a blank page (or your respective equivalent), following a single thread becomes difficult. There are no problems to overcome, restrictions to push against, limitations to force innovation. Left with the option to do anything, we all too often end up doing nothing. In The Art of War, the ancient Chinese military theorist Sun Tzu writes:
“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard. There are not more than five primary colors, yet in combination, they produce more hues than can ever be seen.There are not more than five cardinal tastes, yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted.”
Would we be twice as creative if the English alphabet included twice as many letters, or if we had twice as many musical notes or flavors? I doubt it.
Would we be less creative if we had fewer letters, or notes, or flavors? I doubt that too. Even these basic constraints allow for infinite possibilities- so much so that we have to limit ourselves further. We form genres, styles, movements, schools of thought, categories and subcategories to make things harder and yet at the same time easier.
When we open ourselves up to total freedom, we face the additional challenge of curating our ideas. We have to decide what to say yes to, what to omit, what to focus on. This gets exhausting.
Creativity requires the ability to draw connections between seemingly disparate and we can’t do that when anything is open to inclusion. Throw in an obstacle or two though, and our thinking becomes richer. When I am working to a specific brief, I am always amazed by the references and ideas which appear, as if from nowhere, in my mind. I recall long-forgotten classes at school, lines from books read long ago, concepts I had no idea I knew. The more stuck I feel at the start, the better the final product proves to be.
Yesterday I was working in the basement of a theatre when the WiFi crashed. Unable to do further research, I found myself working harder to make uses of the notes I had already taken, without access to boundless additional information. I stubbornly kept going and ended up drawing more understanding from my limited notes than I thought possible.
G.K Chesterton once said that the most beautiful part of any painting is the frame.
After all, the frame is the ultimate limitation. Within it, the artist must create an entire world with its own logic and narratives. It’s the same in short stories, where the writer forms something tangible within a few pages. The frame gives an artist something to push against, something to distort, something to guide them towards meaning. The most innovative art is that which bucks against its frame; Les Meninas, The Girl With The Pearl Earring, The Arnolfini Portrait. In each (and many other works), the artist works with the limitations of the form and the result is something utterly unique.
Echoing Chesterton, Martin Scorcese once said that cinema is a matter of what is in the frame and what is not. It is as much a matter of omission as inclusion. Constraints force us to pay more attention to what we chose to leave out. No work can ever include everything the creator wants it to - there are always potential additional details.
In The Poetics of Music, Igor Stravinsky writes:
"A mode of composition that does not assign itself limits becomes pure fantasy…The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free…. If everything is permissible to me, the best and the worst, if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable; and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently, every undertaking becomes futile…Well, in art as in everything else, one can build only upon a resisting foundation: Whatever constantly gives way to pressure, constantly renders movement impossible…My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles."
Art is as much about the framing as it is about the picture. A book is as much about what is not said and what is cut out as it is about what gets left it. A song is as much about the silences and inhalations as it is about the words and notes. A play is as much about what we don't see as it is about what we see. These boundaries and constraints are what create and shape a piece of art.
If you want to be more creative, limit yourself. Narrow down a brief. Set an artificial deadline. Make an outline. Write a piece using just 50 words, like Dr Seuss. Do a drawing without taking the pen off the page. It doesn't matter whether making art is part of your job or is what you do in your spare time (or, like me, it's both.) It's amazing how much more interesting things get as a result.