I love a good paradox and this is one of my favorites: the best way to set your creativity free is to impose creative constraints.
Poets do it all the time. The sonnet, haiku, sestina, villanelle, quatrains, even the common limerick are all examples of the structures and constraints poets use to keep their writing and their writing life interesting.
Prose writers challenge themselves with constraints on length – no more than 500 words for short shorts (or even 100 words by some definitions) – or with strict adherence to a specific point of view – first person, third person limited, third person objective – or with 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?
Because too much freedom – “write anything you want” – can be paralyzing. You don’t know where to start, so you don’t start at all.
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.”
Try On New Shackles
If your usual approach feels stale, consider stepping outside of your genre box. You don’t have to make a lifelong commitment to a new genre. A week or two of creative cross-training in another style could change your perspective, give you a new way to think about and use language, and give you tools and techniques you can adapt to your “home” genre.
Think of it as fusion writing.
If you’re a poet who thinks fiction is a waste of words or who can’t fathom writing that many pages, try telling a story on the page and let yourself ramble on and on just to see where you end up.
If you’re a fiction writer who fears memoir will insult or embarrass your family and friends, write the juicy story that would have the people involved squirming in their seats. No one says you have to actually let them or anyone else read it.
The genres you avoid because you are intimidated by their creative demands or you just don’t see the point have something significant to teach you. At the very least, you’ll free yourself from the expectation that everything you write has to “be good,” have a purpose or “go somewhere.”
You might find that after reining yourself in to practice the discipline of the other genre, you can’t wait to let loose in your usual genre. Your passion for your typical form might be reignited by having an “affair” with another genre.
What genres do you want to flirt with?