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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Free Your Writing with Limits

“Break out of the box by stepping into shackles.” – Jonah Lehrer

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?

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5 Comments on “Free Your Writing with Limits”

  1. Joel D Canfield May 11, 2012 at 11:09 am #

    So, having just read “Imagine” myself, I’m reading along, nodding in agreement, until the last two sentences.

    What? I’m supposed to do this stuff myself?


    I think, actually, that I do, with my fiction, but I wonder now if I’ve ever even thought about constraints with my non-fiction.

    Thanks for asking 😉


    • rosannebane May 11, 2012 at 11:47 am #

      You’re welcome and thanks for your observations!


  2. purplelady7 May 11, 2012 at 9:34 am #


    I really enjoy your posts…and am finding them very helpful for my academic writing, as I returned two years ago to finish my doctoral program. I began in 1992, had all but the dissertation done (after the proposal had been accepted) when life interfered and I quit. I am the oldest in my Cohort (72), have had to retake some course work, since 20 years is a bit outdated. But, I love going to school (I am a professional student) and St. Thomas had a wonderful new major when I returned. I finished my core study in International Leadership in Developing Countries, studied last summer for a couple weeks in South Africa and am writing/researching “The Stigma of Growing Old”. So, I thank you for all your hints?

    So, finally to the question! I probably am going to have to have carpal tunnel surgery (too much computer and addictive knitting). I have been looking at
    Dragon Dictate, Version 2, Mac and would like your opinion on this. You talked about this software when I was in your classes. I would really appreciate your advice on this.

    Thanks. I think of you when I am swimming, as I am swimming again after many years of watching my own seven children compete in swimming. Ah, the smell of chlorine.

    Mary Williams, former Loft student.


    • rosannebane May 11, 2012 at 10:29 am #

      Thanks Mary and congrats for all you’re doing! It’s gratifying to hear about my student’s ongoing progress. I haven’t used the voice recognition software myself, but I’ve heard good things about Dragon.



  1. Vote for Your Favorite Post and You Could Win a Free Book! « The Bane of Your Resistance - August 13, 2012

    […] Free Your Writing With Limits […]


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