Creative Constraints

Novice artists are often appalled by the idea of constraints. “I’m going to ignore the rules and create something completely outside the box!” (A cliché that reveals a complete lack of creativity.) They don’t realize the boxes are there for a reason, and working within them could make them more creative, not less.

For instance, if someone is trying to write or perform a blues song, they have stay within some rather strict constraints. Working within them is like dancing in a room – you have to change direction before you hit the wall, but have a great deal of freedom within the room’s constraints. Stray outside the boundaries of what defines the blues and suddenly you’re not playing the blues any more. You’re playing something else, maybe something good, but it ain’t the blues.*

Listen to Dave Brubeck’s “Time Out” – the whole album, not just “Take Five.” Brubeck was experimenting with uncommon time signatures. The musicians working within those constraints created something amazing. Without those constraints they probably would have created Just Another Jazz Album, something that was good, but not a masterpiece.

Unconstrained writing is, unfortunately, frequently presented on forums and social media sites. Entire long messages are written in texting style: “OMG, Im goin 2go2 my bros 2c my rents 4 xmas. LOL.” If you have the audacity to comment on their “style” they’ll usually respond with something like: “B cool bro, ts is the wa I rite. UR 2 old to 2B tellin me how 2 rite. Go eat sum dog food or sumptin LOL” Their insistence on avoiding constraints annoys most readers and gives them the impression the writer is not too bright. That impression is correct 96.4% of the time.

Before I started the Quick Hitts Podcast in 2005 I listened to a lot of other podcasts, taking careful note of things I didn’t like. I thought most shows were too long. The content was good, the production and presentation was fine, but the author/performer spent on way too much time talking about their subject. Knowing I was likely to make the same mistake I imposed my own constraint: every Quick Hitts would be ten minutes or less. I can easily ramble on forever about any subject that interests me. The time limit forces me to boil down my thoughts into a demi-glace. I often break this rule, sometimes going as long as fifteen minutes, but attempting to stay within that constraint is what keeps the show pithy.

(To the folks who have been asking when the next episode will come out: No, I haven’t podfaded, not entirely. I have a few ideas in the queue and will get to them sooner or later. Probably later.)

If you feel that your writing or your music isn’t as good as it could be because you’re bound by convention and restraints, try turning that thought around. What can you do to impose more restraints or tighter restraints? Give it a try, and you may find that well of creativity you’ve been searching for.

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