In the previous post, Do You Know How to Walk Away from Writer’s Block?, I suggested you free yourself by surrendering expectations — now I’m going to propose that you can free yourself by imposing limits!
Poets do it all the time. The sonnet, haiku, sestina, villanelle, quatrains, even the common limerick: poets impose plenty of structures and constraints to keep their writing life interesting.
Prose writers also challenge themselves with constraints on length – no more than 500 words for short shorts (or even 100 words by some definitions) and a bare minimum of 50,000 words for a novel, with short stories, novellas and novelettes in between – strict adherence to a specific point of view – first person, third person limited, third person objective – and a variety of genre, structure and content limitations.
One of the appeals of writing my novella was the challenge of conveying plot twists through the POV of an elderly, first-person narrator whose memory was being intentionally manipulated and who therefore became more and more unreliable as the story developed.
Why do we do this to ourselves? Why make writing even harder with all these limitations?
Making It Harder Makes It Easier
According to Jonah Lehrer in Imagine, constraints push us to new creativity. “You break out of the box by stepping into shackles,” he writes.
“Unless poets are stumped by the form, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they’ll never invent an original line,” Lehrer continues. “When a poet needs to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, he ends up uncovering all sorts of unexpected connections; the difficulty of the task accelerates the insight process.”
In Around the Writer’s Block, I review research by Teresa Amabile, one of the world’s leading researchers on creativity, that shows how significant it is that writers/artists choose the constraints themselves or at least perceive external constraints as interesting, exciting challenges.
It’s the attitude of asking “What I can do with this?” as a genuine and intriguing question rather than a rhetorical, there’s-no-way statement that allows us to make creative constraints work for us instead of blocking us.
I’m still impressed with Derek Hough’s ability to combine the seemingly impossible elements of the Paso Doble with 50’s music that I highlighted in the Do the Im-paso-ble! post two years ago.
What’s your im-paso-ble writing task? What limitation could free your writing?