Constraints and Creativity

Reedsy prompts is a great resource for anyone who wants to try out and exercise his story-writing skills. It gives a new set of writing-challenges every week, all attuned in one particular theme chosen randomly on which you have the chance to write a piece between 1000 and 3000 words, of a fictional storyline that adheres to the theme and comes out straight from the juices of your imagination.

The theme could vary from following a particular crafting technique like ‘write a scene using first-person narration’, or ‘write a mystery that the protagonist doesn’t know about a secret that the audience does, and is only revealed to him at the very end of the story’ all the way to seasonal themes placed in a winter cabin or an autumn afternoon where the events take place in a yellowish background.

The challenge could be anything really and it is only meant to be a trigger that will create enough space for someone to write about whatever comes to his mind, so it’s not strange to read pieces that are radically different than what the subject would suggest or see stories that didn’t quite follow the “rules”.

I have been treasuring these little challenges like a mad-man the last period that I find them to be quite liberating for someone to get his imagination wheels spinning and get right into that creative space from the get-go. Many times I will pick one subject randomly and a whole story will spur out of it exceeding the 3000-word limit, and making the beginning idea resemble only a small nuance lost somewhere in the bulk of words that took their own form and followed a separate path of their own.

The funny thing is though, that when I initially was presented with these prompts, I was actually averted by it. Why would someone spend his time writing a story based on a theme dictated by a random person whom you have never seen, instead of figuring out the theme you would like to write on your own. What is the particular need to take on these challenges and not create the ones you want as you would imagine them?

When I was initially introduced to it I abandoned the idea immediately and just turned around to think something of my own. It seemed like a fairly easy task, to pick something from the buffet of themes and patterns that surround us daily and can offer enough inspiration to fill out a whole library of books. It seemed to me that it would be more of a subject of filtering the mass amount of possible scenarios rather than trying to figure out one and relying on divine inspiration to come up with something.

I spent a few afternoons trying to come up with an outline of a story and it was always rather frustrating how elusively difficult the process is. Most of the plots I could figure out were based on well-known storylines that have been played numerous times on the big screen or written by famous authors in their books stopping them dead in their tracks. And also the characters would feel contrived, and artificial like having no facial characteristics where they would resemble a blur in some abstract story.

The whole period was quite painful and I actually resorted back to the initial prompts that I had found on the website and desperately tried to hang on from them just to get out of my miserable position. One of the prompts went like this:

“Write a story about someone who is working from home and constantly getting distracted by their pet.”

It seemed rather simplistic and basic but at the same time, it so happened that there was an actual stray cat that would sneak into my balcony every day which I would always make sure to feed well anytime she would decide to do so. The actual theme took a real flesh and bones drawn out of real-life where a story took shape out of its own and it was much smoother to follow the lines flawlessly.

“When there are no constraints on the creative process, complacency sets in, and people follow what psychologists call the path-of-least-resistance — they go for the most intuitive idea that comes to mind rather than investing in the development of better ideas. Constraints, in contrast, provide focus and a creative challenge that motivates people to search for and connect information from different sources to generate novel ideas for new products, services, or processes” — Harvard Business Review.

As soon as you decide to embrace the constraints you will find that they can guide you instead of block you and they can point you the way forward in a much simpler fashion.

There is a famous anecdote about Heminway although nobody is really sure how true it is or where it happened exactly where the story goes that he was challenged to create a story with the shortest amount of words. They put a bet of $10, which was a much heftier amount of money than what it is now and they defined the rules. They said it needs to be up to 6 words alone as long as it is a coherent piece of writing.

Writing a story in 6 words is simply unfathomable. You have no time to introduce anyone or describe any setting for the plot to evolve. Yet Heminway accepted the challenge and he came up with something that is as brilliant as someone would expect.

“For sale, baby shoes, never worn”

It goes to show that constraints sometimes can spin off the creativity in us who will have to strive to circumvent them and work with them to create something unique. Without the context, the task becomes chaotic, loses its boundaries and we usually fall back to whatever is most convenient to our instinct or memory. That, most of the time can be more limited than if you had some new component that you could be inspired to follow along with.

Phil Hansen studied art for many years and his paintings relied on a specific pointillist style he had developed which at some point created a certain injury in hands. The tight grip after years of exercise had created permanent neurological damage and he couldn’t even go about drawing a straight line without his hand shaking out of order. Based on what the doctors said there was no way to fix the issue and he would have to abandon his dreams to become a painter forever.

Yet Phil didn’t give up and embraced the shake in his hands to create portraits using his limitation instead of trying to hide it. He allowed himself to scribble away and it wasn’t long after that he realized that he could still create beautiful pieces using this technique.

“Embracing the limitation can actually drive creativity,” he says. “We need to first be limited in order to become limitless.”

It was a breathtaking moment and it pointed out the fact that limitations can actually be a tool on their own as long as you are willing to embrace them instead of fighting against them.

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