The Irony of Constraints: They’re Creative Advantages in Disguise
Our imagination thrives when pressure is applied, when boundaries are set.
If you talk to another writer — any writer, no matter if they’ve just begun to write or if they have a few published books under their belt — you’ll likely hear complaints about their lack of time to truly write the novel of their dreams.
They yearn for a utopian idyll where time is expansive and unfettered, without worry about paying bills, or perhaps without worry of even making meals or cleaning the house. A pure time to write and nothing else.
I’m such a writer. If I had my druthers, I wouldn’t shop for groceries or even gas the car. I’d reside in a completely pampered life where I would wake up and write every day — and then, and only then, would I truly realize the resplendence of my creative potential and write the novel of my dreams.
Instead, my writing life is a cramped and hectic affair. I work all day, return home to household chores and parenting duties, and bustle through a weekend of demands, whether it’s taking my kids to games and birthday parties or doing one of the nagging tasks to keep my house from falling down (or staring at the house falling down, which is a more likely scenario).
My wife and I joke that we’re in a constant race against time. I try to wake early in the morning before work on the weekdays to write, and then I’ll often jot down a smattering of thoughts while watching my kids play soccer, but I write mostly within the nooks and crannies of time, not in its expansive glories. I suffer from what I call the “not-enough blues” — not enough time, not enough money.
Our imagination doesn’t necessarily flourish in the luxury of total freedom.
There’s an old saying that if you argue for your limitations, you get to keep them, but truth be told, I’ve started to realize I’m lucky to have my limitations.
I now see constraints as advantages in disguise. I’ve observed many a person with time on their hands fritter it away (and then have the audacity to complain about their inability to get anything done). Our imagination doesn’t necessarily flourish in the luxury of total freedom, where it’s likely to become a flabby and aimless wastrel. Our imagination thrives when pressure is applied, when boundaries are set.
Limitations of Form: The Benefits of “Thinking Within the Box”
Think of poetry. The box of a poetic form — whether it’s a sonnet, a villanelle, or a haiku — makes the creative act more difficult, yet the requirements of the form force the writer to look beyond obvious associations and consider different words that fit into the rhyming or iambic scheme. Imaginative leaps don’t necessarily happen by thinking “outside the box” as the popular saying goes, but within the box.
I learned this when I started writing 100-word stories after years of writing novels. A novel is like a Southwestern city. You have so much land to build on that you can just keep building farther outward, relishing the sprawl and disregarding any notion of compactness (a potential hazard of urban planning and novel writing). Writing a story in exactly one hundred words is more like building a tiny town hemmed in by mountains and the sea. You have to be very careful with each element you add. You have to eliminate excess. You have to be more intentional in the ways you construct each building and street.
As I practiced writing these tiny stories, I envisioned each of my miniatures as one of artist Joseph Cornell’s box collages — a poetry of assemblages con- fined in a frame that created its own singular world — and I discovered how the condensation of a 100-word story could open up the irreducible mystery of a single intense moment.
In many ways, such short-shorts are the prose version of haiku. Like a haiku, a hundred-word story is an imagist’s medium. As the famous haiku writer Basho said, “The old verse can be about willows. Haiku requires crows picking snails in a rice paddy.” Every word, every detail matters. A piercing precision is key. Flaubert’s idea of the mot juste becomes a guiding aesthetic principle.
Perhaps most important, though, I learned how to craft a story as much through its silences as its words. I wrote with the gaps within and around a story, and I learned how what is omitted can speak as much as the text itself. My narrative tools weren’t just words, but the caesuras and crevices in a story.
I learned how tone, diction, and timbre can guide a story as much as a rising narrative trajectory of actions. I considered how readers read by way of connotation as much as they do through denotation, so I wrote my stories with an emphasis on suggestiveness — at an angle, as a fragment — rather than with the connective tissue of longer pieces. I had to learn how to conjure my characters into three-dimensional figures from a single gesture, a turn of phrase, the sparest of details.
“Is not the most erotic portion of the body where the garment gapes?” Roland Barthes asked in Pleasure of the Text. The erotic nature of the gape in a garment is an apt metaphor for a 100-word story because these tiny stories flow from tantalizing glimpses that lure the reader forward. As much as a writer might want to tell the whole story, to achieve a comprehensive narrative, a good 100-word story draws readers forward best via hints and fleeting appearances.
By writing in such a compressed space, I learned how to create spirals of suspense to make the story bigger.
You might say the writer takes on the role of a flirt. The words and images of a short-short are akin to the lingering glance or the brush of a hand from a desired lover. Writing within a fixed space taught me how a poetic coyness on the page can titillate the reader to fill in the gaps, to essentially become a co-creator of the story.
The most haunting stories are those that don’t provide answers but open up questions. I pondered the writer Ku Ling’s words, which functioned as a Zen koan for me: “A good short-short is short but not small, light but not slight.” By writing in such a compressed space, I learned how to create spirals of suspense to make the story bigger. My stories began to move like a flashlight’s beam, as if the reader were following a series of luminous dots on a path through the night.
Deb Olin Unferth says, “The short makes us consider such questions as: What is the essential element of ‘story’? How much can the author leave out and still create a moving, complete narrative? If I remove all backstory, all exposition, all proper nouns, all dialogue — or if I write a story that consists only of dialogue — in what way is it still a story?”
Unferth’s questions are tested in other forms defined around restrictions that strip down the conventional elements of a story. On the shorter side, there are six-word stories and 140-character stories (“Twiction”). If you want to put restrictions on your word choice, try an abecedarius, an alphabet story in which the first letter of every word follows the order of the alphabet or the first word of each sentence follows the alphabet. You can write a lipogram, a story that omits a particular letter or group of letters (usually a vowel, such as E, the most common letter in the English language).
James Thurber wrote The Wonderful O (Simon & Schuster, 1957), a fairy tale in which villains ban the letter O from use by the inhabitants of the island of Ooroo. Peter Carey decided not to use any commas in his book True History of the Kelly Gang. Robert Olen Butler wrote each of the sixty-two short-shorts in Severance around the remaining ninety seconds of conscious awareness within human heads after they have been decapitated.
The petri dish of constraint is one that few writers seek out. Within the walls of our lives, we might feel like a tiger pacing back and forth in a zoo, dreaming of a wilder time without walls around us, but unlike the tiger, we can find benefits that are hidden in our confinement. Barriers can lead to breakthroughs. Without a lack of time, the urgency of our passions might dissipate. Without constraints, we might not feel the piquant pressure that pushes us to find exactly the right word.
The Ticks of the Clock Are Like a Metronome for Creativity
So not having enough time to write might just be the best thing for your writing. Think of National Novel Writing Month. Very few people say they have the time to write 50,000 words in a month, but such a tight deadline forces one to become more energetic. By focusing on what you can give up for a month — social media, TV, and the like — and using that extra time to write vigorously toward a goal, you’re drawing from a deep well of creativity that would have otherwise gone unexplored.
Constraints keep perfectionism from niggling away at you
A time restriction takes away the choices available to us — choices that can have a paralyzing affect, causing one to dally and maybe not start at all. Constraints, however, keep perfectionism from niggling away at you, so you dive in and just start writing because you have to.
Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a typewriter during his lunch breaks. Toni Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye in the nuggets of time she had after a day’s work and putting her children to bed as a single mom. You might say that small pockets of time are their own special kind of muse. The ticks of the clock are like a metronome for creativity, each tick urging us to get to work now. As Kierkegaard wrote, “The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”
I dream of a time when I’ll have vast swaths of time available to write, but NaNoWriMo has helped me realize that I’m actually lucky to have my limitations. In fact, the ticks of the clock are like a metronome for our creativity, each tick urging us to get to work now.
Here’s a bold recommendation: Don’t complain about a lack of time to write. Without a lack of time, the urgency of your passion dissipates.
Try This: Writing Sprints
Explore the creative power of limitations. Set a timer for 15 or 30 minutes and push yourself to simply dive into your novel wherever you can. This strategy is similar to the Pomodoro Technique, a time management method that breaks down work into intervals separated by short breaks. Bursts of focus with frequent breaks can improve your mental agility.
Grant Faulkner is the author of Pep Talks for Writers: 52 Insights and Actions to Boost Your Creative Mojo and the co-host of the podcast Write-minded. His essays on creative writing have appeared in The New York Times, Poets & Writers, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer.