Writing with Creative Constraints

Dashiel Carrera, author of The Deer, has some great advice for beating writer’s block: Realize that every work of art requires constraints of some kind:

For writers, it may be the case that the magic of creative constraints doesn’t lie in the constraints themselves but in the ways in which they counteract some deleterious impulse. The creative constraint may also be a means of helping writers understand the wants and needs of a particular project. Certainly for the five projects in this collection—spanning the genres of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction—creative constraints elucidated the shifting boundaries that circumscribed the writing process, and revealed a path forward.

This reminds me of one of my favorite aphorisms from Marcus Aurelius: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” I firmly believe this. In the past couple of months, I’ve broken through writer’s block by writing stories for themed anthologies or contests. In other words, I was out of ideas, so I followed the lead of someone else. Too much freedom can get in your way, blinding you to possibilities.

The result? I’ve signed a contract with one publisher, and have submitted two additional manuscripts to other venues, pieces I believe are some of the best work I’ve ever done. (One, by the way, was sent to another publisher rather than the one who proposed the theme. Just another example of how writers find inspiration where they can!)

Creative constraints are everywhere, not just in themes mandated by publishers. The genre you write in imposes its own unique constraints, requiring you to invent fresh ways to work within or around them. A worthy challenge sharpens your craft, makes you approach your project in unexpected and original ways. And of course the form you choose (poetry, essay, novel, etc.) also provides creative constraints. As Robert Frost once put it, writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. Obstacles bring out the best in us.

6 thoughts on “Writing with Creative Constraints”

  1. I love the Aurelius quote. I agree, too, that sometimes our writer’s block stems from too much freedom. I did some of my best work as a journalist on a deadline with an assignment. I’m trying to shift gears now in the academic world. For motivation, I’ve started reaching out to journal editors and responding to calls for papers. I need the deadline and purpose to perform at my best. That may not work for everyone, but it has for me. Great post, Mike.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m the same way. Given unlimited freedom, I find ways to procrastinate and fool myself into thinking I’m working toward the goal. I can’t run until I have a train bearing down on me.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.