The Great Paradox of Creativity

Do you want to improve your creativity? Develop and encourage your inner artist and embrace constraints as you would a trusted friend. That fresh attitude may free you to be the best writer you can be.
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When my college creative writing teacher asked me about my sloppy essay, I explained myself in clear terms: “I am a writer. Therefore, I must be completely free to create.” It sounded reasonable then, and maybe you agree with me now. After all, the “right brain”—the inner artist—operates at peak creativity when the “left brain”—the inner critic—is otherwise occupied or relaxed. Thus, it only stands to reason that we writers are most creative when no constraints or restrictions are placed on our writing. Right?

Well...not necessarily.

The great paradox is this: Constraints cultivate creativity.

Say what?! It’s true that your inner artist may grow frustrated by intrusions from your inner critic, but outside parameters are just the challenge your right brain relishes. Imposed parameters can be inspiring! Sounds crazy?

A lesson from Hitchcock

Psycho is considered one of the greatest horror films of all time, and yet there are only two acts of violence in the entire movie. Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Joseph Stefano were not allowed to show nudity, nor could they show a knife actually penetrating a body. Gore was not allowed either. What’s to do with all these constraints?

Alfred Hitchcock (director) in collaboration with Saul Bass (pictorial consultant), frames from the shower scene in Psycho (1960, directed by Alfred Hitchcock). Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Alfred Hitchcock (director) in collaboration with Saul Bass (pictorial consultant), frames from the shower scene in Psycho (1960, directed by Alfred Hitchcock). Courtesy Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In the now-famous shower scene, the nudity is implied, and the knife is juxtaposed to the body, but is never seen entering the body. The Hershey’s cocoa swirling down the drain terrified me as a teen. In a word, Hitchcock & Stefano were forced to be creative in how they wrote and shot that scene. The constraints helped create a classic. Today, there are no or few restrictions to the horror genre, and what do we often get? More and more blood and guts, with little creativity. The art has not advanced.

Certainly, it is possible to be creative without restrictions. You’ve experienced that in your own writing. That sacred creative flow transports you to Writer’s Nirvana. But constraints can be helpful, too, and even fun. As I write, I am enjoying the challenge of whittling this article down to 900 words. (I actually came in at 901.) In so doing, I find myself refining my little opus so that I better connect with you (I hope).

Restrictions that rock

What do Mad Max, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Back to the Future have in common? They all benefited from restrictions that forced inventive rewriting.

Because of the budgetary restrictions, Monty Python and the Holy Grail had to be written and filmed without the use of horses. The result was pantomime horseback riding and the clip-clop of coconut shells. Originally, the time machine in Back to the Future was an elaborate refrigerator powered by a nuclear explosion. Realizing it wouldn’t work, they used a DeLorean with a flux capacitor. And we all love the DeLorean. And the biker gang in Mad Max was a real biker gang, which didn’t require costuming, locating and purchasing bikes, and makeup.

Actor Sam Neill reports that the recent coronavirus restrictions actually helped the production of Jurassic World: Dominion by bringing the actors closer together.

Blocks into stepping stones

Have you ever felt blocked at one time or another by the thought of editorial restrictions? Perhaps the constraints reminded you of an overly critical parent or a past nasty authority figure, but they can inspire you if you let go of your initial resistant reaction. With a little re-thinking, the block you feel becomes a veritable stepping stone to better writing.

Restrictions and constraints of all kinds have forced revisions of many scripts, including my own A Window in Time, which I envisioned as a big-budget picture, but ABC wanted it for a TV movie. The result was a better script. My block became a stepping stone. Soon, you may sell your script and thereafter be asked to revise it to fit some parameter. Rejoice and have fun!

Much of the great music of the past was commissioned; the composer didn’t initiate the project and was confined to the musical forms of the time. Even hip-hop and rap adhere to some form or format. Everything artistic has two components—form and content. The creativity comes in how you craft the content within the restrictions of that form. Yes, and sometimes the writer transcends that form. Enter Pulp Fiction.

Fun with a straitjacket

Years ago, an independent movie producer paid me a paltry sum to write a low budget screenplay. She gave me a list of twelve parameters, including one car crash with two late model cars, one burn (that is, one character had to be set on fire), and the limitation of just one outdoor location. I felt so confined. It wasn’t until I slapped my face a few times and accepted her parameters that the writing process became both a challenge and a joy. It was fun getting creative ideas on how to write that thing, given all the picky parameters. With a change of attitude, the ideas flowed.

That led to the ultimate screenwriting challenge: write the lowest budget script ever. It was liberating. The result? The Love Shuttle, set in an airport shuttle. I’ve had three bites so far.

Do you want to improve your creativity? Develop and encourage your inner artist and embrace constraints as you would a trusted friend. That fresh attitude may free you to be the best writer you can be.


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