Many myths surround the creative process. One of these is the notion of creative freedom. It seems obvious that having a free rein could only be beneficial. So prevalent is the attitude that many contemporary creators will refuse to tackle a project that has restrictions. They turn up their noses and stalk haughtily away proclaiming that they could not possibly compromise their artistic vision and personal integrity by acquiescing to anything as philistine as limitations.
I am going to argue the counter-intuitive idea that restrictions are actually an asset. You may be surprised to learn that many famous creators share the point of view.
H. G. Wells expressed a related sentiment when he said, “Where anything is possible, nothing is interesting.” He was referring to stories, of course. He believed that a hero who could do anything or a situation where anything was possible meant there were no challenges to overcome, no obstacles to surmount, and no dangers to survive. Where is the interest in such a scenario? Who wants to read a story where there are no limits on what a hero can accomplish? Where is the suspense in a story based on the assumption that at any moment some miraculous turn of events will save the day? Only a story where the hero faces the possibility of humiliation, failure, or even death can engage the reader’s concern.
More to the point is this gem from the Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky: “My freedom will be so much greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength.” He was writing about his work.
Stravinsky’s great insight was that constrained circumstances prompt effective action (or creativity) by defining a manageable set of clear possibilities. Unlimited, unhampered situations make for an unmanageably large set of vague possibilities, which in turn, leads to aimless ineffective responses. This is akin to the skilled salesperson’s tactic of not giving their customers too many choices. When there are many options, customers are less likely to make a purchase. It is just too hard to decide.
Then there is this lovely image from the stodgy German philosopher Immanuel Kant: “The light dove, cleaving the air in her free flight, and feeling its resistance, might imagine that its flight would be still easier in empty space.” What could be clearer? The dove can fly only because the air resists the movement of its beating wings. The flow over those wings may slow the bird, but without the lift that it provides, there would be no flight.
Wise creators consciously exploit the benefits of limitations by laying out a number of them when they start a new project. My book will be 300 pages long, feature a man versus nature theme, and have a sad ending. This poem will be free verse, use waterfall and rainbow imagery, and have no more than 20 lines. I will finish my project in five months. And so on.