Boundaries and creativity

Posted: July 24, 2013 in writing
Tags: , ,

People often talk about creativity as a chaotic thing, all about freedom. But I’m not convinced. For me, limitations and boundaries are the real source of inspiration.

Look, I saw a thing!

Look, I saw a thing!

A few years ago, Mrs K and I picked up a book of creative brain-stretching exercises from a charity shop. One of them was to take photographs of ten boundaries. We were on holiday in York at the time, and it seemed like it might be fun, so we looked for boundaries as we wandered around the town. We found fences and doorways, road-signs and boot-scrapers, and dozens of other objects marking the limits of things, not least the city walls of York itself. And I noticed something as we did this. All of those boundaries restricted people, but in doing so they also permitted and enabled. Double yellow lines might stop people parking where they want to, but they also help traffic to keep flowing. Without a cup to restrict my coffee, I wouldn’t be able to drink it.

Mm, tasty boundaries

Mm, tasty boundaries

The same thing applies in my writing. If I sit down without any restrictions, without a word count or a genre to work towards, I can do anything. But that doesn’t give me any focus. Whereas writing for a themed anthology, where I need to fit that theme, that gives me a starting point, a limitation, something to play off. Whether that’s a flash story on mutant worms or five thousand words on cheese-making in space, it gives me focus and it gives me ideas. Those limitations inspire me.

York city walls - really rather inspiring

York city walls – really rather inspiring

Obviously, there’s something of a balancing act to this. Without any freedom you’re not creating, just repeating. But I think that we under-estimate the value of limitations in art. Even on the most basic level, it’s the rules of language – spelling, grammar, meanings of words – that give us tools to write with. Creativity doesn’t usually involve breaking those rules, but instead finding new ways to use them.

What do you think? What limitations do you find helpful or unhelpful? Do you believe in creativity as chaos? As always, I’m interested to know, so please comment below.

  1. bejamin4 says:

    Nice post. Strange how boundaries can both stunt and spark creativity.

  2. syncnflow says:

    I see what you’re getting at here. Reflecting a bit, I find this pattern in my dance. When I dance in a small space like a hallway, I am more mindful of my boundaries and therefore stay within them. I can still allow my creativity to run wild in that space. Then I find that when I have a wide open space, I lose my balance more than when I had limited space to move. Funny how that works!

    • Interesting example, especially as it’s about a more physical form of expression. I wonder if there’s something in there about how our bodies and brains connect in unexpected ways, the mental awareness of space affecting how your body achieves balance.

  3. glenatron says:

    A lot of my best work has been tightly constrained- this comes from writing lyrics as well, where you have a very precise rhythm and rhyme scheme that you must adhere to and you simply have no lassitude to sneak so much as an extra syllable in. It is slow work but a really enjoyable challenge.

    • I think there’s something to be learned from when people break those limitations on lyrical constraints. When they do the effect is usually a mood-breaking one (at least in my limited ability to analyse music) – the examples I can think of are generally humorous songs, using the failure of rhythm to make us uncomfortable and evoke laugh. Does that fit with your experience?

      I think this might highlight something wider, but I’ve only just woken up, so the thought’s only half formed.

  4. Nick says:

    The same applies to design as well. A tightly constrained design is much easier to develop than one that can be whatever you like, even if the constraints are difficult ones to meet.

  5. […] Heck, especially the art of writing. […]

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