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How limiting creative choices enhances creativity

I recently had lunch with one of my older friends who lives at a retirement community. At the table, I met Robert, 88, another resident. As our group visited, I turned to Robert and asked, “What is your creative passion?”

“I’m a sculptor,” he said.

I asked him if the retirement community had an art room to work in. No, he said. He just worked in his apartment.

“There are some limitations,” he said.

I told him, “Sometimes limitations enhance creativity.”

“That is true,” he said.

As it turned out, Robert had been a university art professor, worked as director of an art museum, and traveled extensively. As I talked to Robert, I found that he had another limitation that affected his creative pursuits. He was losing his eyesight, which affected his whole approach and experience as an artist.

The idea of creativity and boundaries reminded me of famed profile, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” that came about when writer Gay Talese was assigned in 1965 to write a profile of Frank Sinatra that Esquire magazine planned to use for a cover story. Talese was unable to write a traditional profile he’d intended because Sinatra had a cold and didn’t feel like being interviewed.

Despite not being able to interview Sinatra, Talese began talking to Sinatra’s friends and the people who worked for him. He also just hung around and observed Sinatra as much as possible. Talese’s different perspective led him to produce one of the most unique celebrity features ever written.

In a letter to his editor Harold Hayes, Talese wrote, “I may not get the piece we’d hoped for—the real Frank Sinatra. But perhaps, by not getting it—and by getting rejected constantly and by seeing his flunkies protecting his flanks—we will be getting close to the truth about the man.” Without Talese ever receiving Sinatra’s cooperation, the story was published in April 1966.

Whether we write creative nonfiction, fiction, poetry or essays, boundaries can take us in unexpected directions. Talese’s roadblock ultimately led to a completely different style of reporting and writing that revealed a different portrait of Sinatra — and even celebrity culture — than he would have ever created if he’d been able to interview the man himself. For more insight on his interviewing and writing approach to the story, read this page by Stacy Spaulding, associate professor at Towson University.

How can you impose limits to enhance creativity in your writing? Try these techniques:

Reduce a character’s options. Take even the most unusual of options out of a character’s toolbox and that character will have to stretch herself to find a solution to get to her deepest desire. The benefit: You’ll escape a predictable story and amplify tension.

Set geographic constraints. Put your characters in a location that requires them to work with a specific geography and weather. Limiting yourself in this way might even create new options. Constraints can lead to specific choices that help you create a unique tone. For example, if you set a story on the Strip in Las Vegas, Nev., it will have a very different feel than if it takes place in Fargo, N.D.

Create a narrative in a limited number of words. Twitter has forced tweeters to write messages in 140 characters. Flash fiction and flash non-fiction requires writers to abide by set word limits — anywhere from 25 to 1,000 words, depending on the publication. Creating a narrative in a limited number of words drives choices and pushes writing in unexpected directions.

Establish a structure. Force yourself to write in a specific style or genre. For example, if you’re a poet, decide to write a sestina or a sonnet to see what it’s like. If you’re a novelist, try writing flash fiction.


Photo courtesy: Wikipedia

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I love this. It is a fresh look at creativity.

    December 23, 2014

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