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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

ParadoxI 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?

© Can Stock Photo / focalpoint

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.”

This, I suspect, is why writing prompts with specific requirements — use these 10 words or include a particular situation — work.

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?

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3 Comments on “Free Your Writing With Limits”

  1. Joel D Canfield October 31, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

    When the 12-tone musical scale was standardized 500 years ago we saw the greatest explosion of musical composition in history. And, early on, some works by chaps like Mozart and Beethoven which will never be surpassed, probably never equalled.

    Constraints are a stupendous tool for creativity. I love how you’ve combined constraints with cross-pollenation, a perspective I hadn’t explicitly landed on before.

    After reading Johnny B. Truant’s marvelous Unicorn Western I realized I had to write a cowboys-and-aliens novel. Meeting the genre expectations of both a western and scifi gives me a tight clean box to work in, and I’m looking forward to working on it. Next year, I mean, when I finish all the stuff I’ve already got on my plate.

    I started a coming of age novel a few years ago, but didn’t realize what it was. Now that I do, I have to understand the constraints, and it’ll propel the story forward.

    I’m also finally getting the illustrations for my children’s book done, and then I can tidy up my business parable. And then there’s over 150 songs and a handful of poems.

    Not much left to experiment with, but two giant fields come to mind:

    I’d love to try my hand at horror, except I don’t do paranormal and won’t do grisly gore, so I’d have to land squarely in the Hitchcockian what-you-don’t-see-is-worse-in-your-mind boat.

    And then there’s always the sweeping historical romance I’ve never even considered before.

    Do you follow Steven Pressfield’s editor Shawn Coyne at Story Grid? Shawn is starting to write about genre, and one of his recent posts is a stellar article on the constraints and expectations of genre:



    • rosannebane October 31, 2014 at 1:11 pm #

      Thanks Joel! My Master’s thesis was a romantic comedy/sf time-travel/western screenplay. I loved the interactions between my cowboy hero and the apologetic aliens. It was so much fun to write. I’m looking forward to reading your cowboys-and-aliens story.
      I’m trying to keep up with Shawn Coyne’s blog – it’s in the To Read pile. I’m bump the one you mention up to the top of the list.



  1. New Book Update: How Potato Chip Chapters Made My Novel Leaner | The Bane of Your Resistance - February 19, 2015

    […] number that every chapter must adhere to. But it is a nice round number to shoot for and a specific creative constraint that pushes me in the right direction. The old goal, “Make the novel shorter,” […]


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