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From the Front Lines: How a little constraint can improve your craft

Go ahead, tie yourself up in knots.

From the Front Lines: How a little constraint can improve your craft. This illustration features a pencil tied in a knot.
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In a class I’m teaching for Bay Path University’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction, the discussion board virtually hops with action. Even though there are only eight and nine students in each of the sections I’m teaching for this class, it’s not unusual for each discussion board to see 50 or 60 posts within five days. My students’ posts are rangy and long and deep-thinking and marked by tangents.

For the first few weeks, there weren’t any restrictions placed on the posts – the students just had to post their reactions to the readings. And then I gave them a word limit: They had just 350 words to express themselves.

There was a fair amount of hand-wringing. Some students just flat-out ignored the instructions and then came around in subsequent posts after being gently reminded. Eventually, they all produced compelling, lyrical work that both challenged and refreshed readers. Some work ended abruptly, but overall, the length constraint made for some great reading.

A similar thing happened many years ago, while I trained for Very Long, Colossally Stupid Sport Event (you may know it better as Ironman): I had vastly reduced amounts of free time, but I became very efficient with what I had to play with.

And just look at what happens when you procrastinate right up to a deadline – the deer-in-the-headlights sensation you get seems to spring just the creative leak you need to get the work done. Don’t believe me? Just ask my publisher, who asked me months ago to send over some copy for the back cover of my forthcoming book. Yes, I waited until the 11th hour! And yes, the sales team of our distributor agrees it’s good copy that will entice both readers and booksellers.

But it’s not just time and space constraints that can lead to good results. Both social scientists and students of cultural history can point to many examples of great work that was produced with the help of limits. In her book Rebel Talent, researcher Francesca Gino writes, “[W]hen we’re faced with constraints, we dedicate our mental energy to acting more resourcefully and doggedly and surpass expectations – or better.” Gino points out that “masterpieces of Renaissance art started as commissions in which the painter was bound to adhere to narrow specifications on subject matter, materials, color, and size.”

Whether we’re looking to start something or finish something, a little constraint may be just what we need to fire up our creative juices.

In the writing world, we may push against this. “I just gotta be freeeeee!” you might shriek in protest. And it’s true: we writers often see ourselves as producing best when we have the latitude to write about whatever we want. And while that may be true, sometimes, whether we’re looking to start something or finish something, a little constraint may be just what we need to fire up our creative juices.

In fact, most writing prompts are constrained, aren’t they? They ask you to write about a specific place or time, or to write about a particular character doing something unique to them. Some of these character studies might be really tightly constrained: “What’s in your character’s pocket right now?” “Who would your character have over to a dinner party? What would they serve?” “What’s your character’s verbal tic, and how did they get it?” These exercises help us to form complete pictures.

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But what I’m talking about is slightly different. What I’m talking about is using constraints to broaden both your toolkit and your skillset. What if I were to ask you, say, to write a short story from second-person POV? What if I paired that with a time constraint? (This is a true story, by the way. A friend dared me to write a second-person POV story within 24 hours. The result is one of my favorite stories.)

Or how about if I asked you to re-arrange the words of a pre-existing poem to make your own poem or prose piece? (This is an exercise I stole from poet Elizabeth Austen. When she made us do it, I may or may not have likened it to squeezing champagne from a rock. But it’s a highly effective exercise.)

What happens if you had to tell the story of a human love affair using only fruits and vegetables and their life cycle?

We often think of limits and constraints as being bad things, and they can very well be. Think, for instance, about the idea of bounded awareness, in which you only see things that support your personal bias. Or the very human desire to stick with the status quo, for fear of rocking the boat. But if we’re aware of these constraints, and then we introduce others into the mix, we might just end up with something we never thought we’d be able to produce, a work that was never on our radar screens. Drawing from the business world, look at what might happen if a company has to work with a tiny budget for advertising and marketing: You could end up with a promotion like the Wisconsin Humane Society came up with, where its staff members and volunteers drew questionable portraits of people’s pets in exchange for a $15 donation. The effort netted $12,000.

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Oh, I know! Wouldn’t it be great if our questionable creations each netted us $12,000? But this is not the point here. The point is, try a little something new by throwing a little constraint into your creative process. The result might be something utterly beyond your original boundaries.

 

—Yi Shun Lai is the fiction editor and co-owner of Tahoma Literary Review. Read about her writing coaching and editing services; her novel, Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu; and her daily adventures at thegooddirt.org.

 

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