Thursday, January 26, 2012

Creativity and Constraints

I like to think of myself as a creative person. There’s little more that excites me than taking nothing and making something amazing out of it. I guess that’s why I love Interior Design. Where some people might see four blank builder’s beige walls, I see boundless potential. It also contributes to my love of writing. What was once a blank word document can be turned into 122 pages full of another world, rich with its own characters and conflicts.

But what I’ve realized lately is how infrequently we are given complete free reign when it comes to creative pursuits. There are almost always constraints, or boundaries, or rules we have to stay within while being creative.

Take, for example, the show Chopped. Bear with me here. I’m a Food Network junkie and Chopped is one of my favorite shows of all time. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s basically this: four contestants are given a basket of secret ingredients and a time limit. They HAVE to use every ingredient in the basket, and be done in 20-30 minutes (depending on the round), but other than that there are no rules. Fry, saute, bake, sear, char, grill, whatever. There are three rounds, and after each round one contestant is chopped until the dessert round where two of them face off for the win.

It amazes me what these people can do! I mean I see them take a basket of goat brains and fruit loops and they make something amazing that these highly respected chef judges rave over.

But I find myself wondering; if they were put in the kitchen and told to make any appetizer they wanted in any amount of time they wanted, would they come up with dishes as amazing? Or would they flounder? Sometimes when we’re given endless decisions, we get stuck. We don’t know what to do, and it feels like all creativity is lost.


Constraints can be good. They guide us. They protect us in a way. They keep us focused. Rarely do I get to design a space without thinking about the budget constraints, the time constraints, the labor constraints, etc. Rarely does a writer get the go-ahead from their publisher to just write “whatever” and have their whole-hearted support (I’m assuming, as I do not have a publisher, but it doesn’t seem like it makes good business sense…). And while I’m no cook, I’ve watched enough food network to know that there are conventional restraints that you just don’t break; fish with cheese is one of them. So they say.

So anyway, I guess what I’m saying is maybe creativity isn’t just making something out of nothing; it’s making something exciting under a boring ol’ set of rules. It’s finding a way to squeeze your word-count down while maintaining your story. It’s finagling your paint colors to please the public and your boss. And it’s mixing the right ingredients to make fruit-loop crusted goat brains a restaurant-quality meal.

What do you think? Do constraints help or hinder your creative process?


  1. I agree. When I submitted my book to my publisher, I knew I had to trim the word count. So I went about doing so and the book became that much better. So constraint really did force me to push out a better product.

  2. This is so interesting. I've never thought about creativity in this way. I'm a rule follower and totally believe in the philosophy that there are rules for a reason. They keep us in line to what is expected. But I also think that creativity is meant to push those boundaries and bend the rules so what we create is unique and special.

  3. Ah, Chopped. My grandmother was telling me about that show. I meant to watch it while I was up visiting her, but we didn't get around to it.


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