Law in Contemporary Society

Creative Constraint

By Seth Glickman - 26 Feb 2020

The Unconstrained Abyss

My father and I talk on the phone most every week, and a recurring pattern during these conversations is, after some small talk and other discussion, the request “Tell me a story about your life.” I dread this point in the conversation as the immense open-endedness of the question without fail causes my thought process to go completely blank. I stutter that nothing in particular is coming to mind, and desperately attempt to replay the entirety of the past week’s events in my head, trying to mine anything of interest out of the high-level fast-forward reel. This rarely succeeds, and I silently resolve to be better-prepared next time, to mentally bookmark an anecdote or two as they happen during the upcoming week to ensure prompt conversational relay. Eventually, after yet another abject failure on my part I explained to my father that somehow he had inadvertently stumbled on a Snow Crash -esque verbal kill switch, and that there was no quicker or more effective way to shut me down during a conversation. He’s since shifted away from terrifying generality into more familiar, specific territory, and the quality of our discourse has dramatically improved.

Much, if not most, of the fault there lies in my own neuroses I’m sure, but there is a curious and counterintuitive relationship between constraint and creativity. Constraint helps promote and refine creativity. It provides at the same time a scaffolding to build on and a challenge requiring creative solutions to overcome. Constraint can be a set of pruning shears, focusing efforts toward a more fruitful outcome. Granted, excessive restriction can smother creativity—it’s difficult to be creative on a multiple choice exam—but a little constraint goes a very long way, and in fact creativity can flourish amid a surprisingly restrictive set of conditions.

Constraining Toward Freedom

In his book Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature, Daniel Levin Becker traces the history and influence of the Oulipo, an experimental literature collective devoted to formally and procedurally constrained writing. One of the collective’s most beloved works is the Georges Perec novel La Disparition, a noir mystery in which the character Anton Vowl goes missing. The book is a 300-page lipogram, a text written with a limited set of letters: in this case, it contains no e’s (incredibly, it was translated to English under the same constraint, with the title A Void). Severe limits on duration can also focus creativity into the white-hot point of a magnifying lens held up to the sun. Think of the famous apocryphal Hemingway six-word tragedy: “For sale, baby shoes, never worn.” That concentration of potency could not be sustained in a longer text; without its incredible economy of words it could not exist. At times the Oulipo seems to have adopted Kenneth Goldsmith’s “the best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read” quip, and can appear more interested in devising new constraints and techniques than actually producing literary output, but this view is incorrect, or at least incomplete, as these ideas are themselves output, and the conditions and algorithms can themselves be amusing or even inspirational. Outside of being self-contained creative ends of their own, however, constraints help guide and grow creativity in two distinct ways: form and formulation.

Form-Guiding Constraint

Some scaffolding, whether externally or internally derived, is required for any creative work. There’s nothing wrong with a framework generated entirely by the author but an externally-imposed skeleton will likely be a creative input the author would not have considered, and his or her work may end up the richer for it. Constraints can even be beneficial when an author attempts to defy them, which can be another avenue for creative advancement. Providing form can help to complete a work, bringing it out of writer’s block and into existence. Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies follows this exact approach. It is a deck of cards, “each of which is a suggestion of a course of action or thinking to assist in creative situations” - in short, a set of constraints an author may self-impose to jump-start creativity. By all accounts it is quite effective.

Formulation-Guiding Constraint

Before form can be filled in, you need an idea. Flinty thought processes, violently and repeatedly striking against the steel of constraint, can produce sparks, the genesis of a creative work. Conflict and rebellion are critical elements - it takes two to tango, and constraint is a rewarding dance partner. When you don’t know where to begin, constraint provides a surface area to explore. This surface area is still infinite, but it’s one of the lower cardinality, more-approachable infinities. Analysis paralysis is a real phenomenon, and the more open your initial prompt, the stronger its chokehold.

Constraining Constraint

Oblique Strategies now directs me to “emphasize the flaws”. We can start with a fundamental question: is constraint preferable to no constraint? I know that I personally find it preferable but I am not convinced this answer holds true for everyone, though I believe it probably does. A more difficult question lies in selecting which constraints to operate by, if presented with the choice. I believe that while there are a few obviously incorrect choices depending on characteristics of the work in question (this essay would not have benefitted if I had taken a lipogrammatic approach), for any creative work there is a broad set of constraints, any of which can lead to agreeable outcomes, and it can be an enjoyable exercise to map out what a subset of those outcomes would look like under various constraints.


Creativity is a rare quality. Embrace constraint: identify its presence, seek it out, wrestle with and against it. It will set you free.


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r4 - 27 Feb 2020 - 20:00:06 - SethGlickman
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