c&p #11: Creative constraints are your best friend


In writing, there's one thing above all else that stops us dead in our tracks.

The dreaded blank page.

Or even worse, that little line cursor thing constantly blinking, taunting you to type on it, regardless of whether you feel inspired to type or not.

The blank page is the same as a blank canvas. It's the problem of not knowing what to create, or having too many options, or not being confident enough in your idea. But at the root of it all, it's the problem of having too few constraints.

That might sound weird; the idea that not being constrained is a bad thing, but when it comes to creativity, sometimes, oftentimes, for me, most of the time, it's a terrible thing. Counter-intuitive, I know.

While every artist prays for freedom and its many incarnations, having too much causes us problems.

Nope, that sucked.

Gah, that was a terrible idea.

Man, I can't think of what to say.

Will they like this? Or this? Or this?

What am I trying to say here? I don't even know.

How do I shape this into something someone will enjoy?

What the hell do I even write about?

Having an infinite amount of options creates space between you having an idea and you executing on it.

In that space lies doubt. Indecision. Fear. Laziness. Procrastination.

And the more space you have, the more likely you are to self-sabotage the starting line of creating your next thing.


This occurs in all forms of art and creative endeavours and in as many ways as the options you have before you start something. It's perhaps one of the biggest "resistances" (as Steven Pressfield in his book "The War of Art" calls it) you have as a creative person.

This is something that took me a long time to figure out for myself. I'm the kind of guy who loves lots of choices and options and prefers to survey the environment before making a decision. I'm a real min-maxer of both life and RPG games, always looking for the most optimal decision, so this insight wasn't something I was born with; I had to learn it.

The key to creative productivity oddly lies in something completely opposite to having the freedom of choice. It lies in creative constraints.

Creative constraints are you giving yourself some guide rails for your next creation. Providing yourself with a prompt, a tip, a strategy, a tactic, a something you can use to work from. Because when the world is at your fingertips, there are too many options and deciding what to do next takes too long. But if you've got a clue, a goal, a direction, then getting started is easy.

"Draw me a painting" is hard.

What kind of painting? In what style? With what colour palette? On what surface? Of what? Including who?

"Draw me a painting of a green and brown pine tree with this set of coloured pencils in this book" is easy.

The saviour is in the detail.

Creative constraints are something you can use in any medium of art. However, I've found them to be extremely useful when they're aligned with the goals of what you're trying to do with your art and/or your creative business.

When you have goals you want to reach, you have direction. When you have a direction, you can give yourself prompts and guide rails to make sure that the things you are creating are moving you closer to those goals.

Want to become a master photographer? Get out there and spend every single week mastering a new Visual Pattern.

Want to become a fantastic writer? Figure out what you want your work to be known for and write in pieces towards your main goal.

Want to become a world-class videographer? Research the best ones in the world, break down the individual skills they use to become the best and spend your next creating session working on those skills.

The idea here is to figure out where you want to take your art, break it down into teeny little pieces, and use those pieces as your creative constraints for the next time you go and create your next piece of work. Not only will you find that you get started almost immediately, but you'll find that after doing many of these in a row, something forms. Something larger than the sum of their parts. Something magical, a body of work.

As artists, many of us think that by just "doing the work", the results will come. Sure, broadly, that's kind of the goal. But deliberate, consistent, timely practice beats fractured, infrequent, repetitive practice any day of the week.

Freedom, in this case, ironically, is the enemy. And the narrowing down of your options provides you with focus, and focus is what gets you to your goals.

So go make friends with creative constraints. They'll be your next best friend.

See you next week, creative.

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