Creativity and Constraint

Let’s travel back years ago, to an incident that taught me about the fine balance between creativity and constraint…

The year was 2010. I had just discovered Nanowrimo – a project to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. This sounded really interesting. I had always wanted to write a novel, even if it never got published, and I enjoyed writing in general. Plus, I had tons of ideas I wanted to express, feelings I wanted to vent, and I felt writing would offer a great medium for doing so. So I signed up and started writing.

I knew what I would write: a highly personal polemic in which the protagonist was a thinly disguised version of yours truly. It would rail against a particular worldview I opposed, but more importantly, it would strike out against all those tropes of the literary convention I despised. I wouldn’t write conflicts, love interests, sex scenes or action scenes. No, I would write a completely creative novel and screw conventions!

At the end of November, I beheld my finished work. I read through it, and I found it…

Sucked. Hard.

Reading through it, I couldn’t quite put my finger on the source of suck. The novel just never seemed to gel, never seemed to go anywhere, had no substance. It just kind of sat there. It seemed less a novel than an uneventful smattering of words. What did it lack?

A few weeks after Nanowrimo, I found myself in a library, and I saw a novel that inspired a TV show I liked. I picked it up, mainly to compare it with the show. And I devoured it. Reading a novel after attempting to write one opened my eyes to elements of the novel I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. I got so much more out of that novel, enjoyed it on a deeper level and most importantly, I saw that novel had what mine lacked.


This book gripped me, and made me not want to put it down. And while it eschewed some of the tropes of the genre, it didn’t try to transcend the structure, and it shined in its tight pacing.

For instance, the novel set up a conflict and enmeshed the protagonist in it. Every time the protagonist tried to resolve the conflict, things went well for a while, then got worse, with each chapter ending on a suspenseful note. This made each chapter segue beautifully into the next and kept me reading just to see what happened.

I realized then and there that while I could eschew things like sex scenes, I could not ignore some of the other conventions, like structure. So I studied novel structures, mulled over my novel and waited for the next November to roll around.

November came and I picked a separate topic to write about. Now I maintained a structure while avoiding some of the hoarier tropes. And at the end of November, I beheld the novel and it…

Sucked. Less. Hey, I’ll take it!

And with each passing year, I refined my craft, writing successively less sucky novels.

Nanowrimo taught me a valuable lesson: Creativity must happen within constraints.

Anyone can write something completely unpredictable. I can throw a jumble of words on a page, and write a surprising novel because the characters don’t act in sensible ways. However, can I call this creative? For creativity to matter, it must occur within constraints. The unexpected plot twist only matters if the plot still follows a logical progression. An eye-opening or utterly fresh approach only matters if people find the novel readable.

Take another analogy; cooking. Let’s say a master chef whipped up a meal of marshmallows, cheddar cheese and seltzer water. Now, let’s say this dish tastes terrible. Would you call the dish creative? Would you even call it cooking? I would only consider the chef creative if s/he managed to make this combination taste great.

Deep down, I knew this, but never understood the implications until I tried to do something creative and understood this by my very failure.

All this not only got me to better understand creativity, but to frame my thought about creativity in the other arts.

Fast forward a few years…

I befriended a person who was majoring in Fine Arts. She specialized in poetry, and as a result read and wrote a lot of it.

Well one day, she asked for my help. She had an assignment due soon. This assignment required her to read a large number of amateur poetry submissions to a local literary journal and to rate them. Some of these poets had been published in small papers before, most had not – but none were professionals.

I agreed to help, and as I read the horrible tripe that they submitted, I found myself growing increasingly irate. I didn’t consider most of the submissions poetry or even coherent writing. I encountered jumbles of words, word salads, words arranged in weird columns, long rants more fitting for a lunatic than an artist, and arbitrary inclusions of “socially relevant” references that just made the author look cynical and clueless.

After reading the umpteenth mishmash of incoherent crap, I lost it.

What is this crap?” I asked, rubbing my eyes in a desperate attempt to wipe away the afterimage of the last ‘poem’ I read.

It’s poetry,” she said sweetly.

I pointed to the submission I was reading, a piece that not only had no poetic structure, but wasn’t even coherent.

How can you call this poetry?” I asked, grimacing. I read some of it out loud and had to stop when my gag reflex kicked in. “There’s no sonic qualities whatsoever.”

It’s poetry,” she said sweetly.

No, it’s not. Didn’t you hear me? It satisfies none of the qualities of poetry. I don’t expect things to rhyme and I know blank verse and all that, but there are some criteria for poetry.”

Poetry can be anything,” she said.

My jaw dropped and I searched her face, desperately looking for a twinkle in her eye, a smirk, some sign that she was joking. However, what I saw terrified me.

I saw earnestness.

I spoke slowly, trying to overcome my disbelief. “Words have meanings. If you call something poetry, then it must have some definition it must satisfy. Otherwise, the term is meaningless and the genre doesn’t even exist. You’re a poet, you use words, you understand their power and meaning, even if you often use them metaphorically.”

She just laughed and went back to reading her submissions and I went back to rejecting almost everything that came my way. I wouldn’t even accept most of it as a middle school writing assignment, much less “professional” work.

Sadly, this dismal quality wasn’t restricted to the amateur submissions she read. Her school assigned her some published books of poetry, and I found all but one to be terrible, with one of them being worse than any of the amateur submissions. Again, no sonic qualities, full of gibberish, and nothing that served any of the functions of poetry. In one case, the author used a very odd punctuation style which was completely distracting, and when I researched it online, found this punctuation choice was an attempt to communicate some social agenda.

Huh? First, since when did a sociopolitical agenda take precedence over the aesthetics of a piece? Wait, I already know the answer – for a long time, and apparently aesthetics is passe. Second, what good is using punctuation to communicate a social agenda if no one understands it? If you’re out to change the world by writing for others, shouldn’t you make sure they understand your message – otherwise, how will you affect change?

That work not only made the author seem untalented, but stupid AND delusional.

Looking at these ‘poetry’ books, I came to a depressing conclusion. These authors only got published because literary programs required students to read them. They wouldn’t survive 10 seconds in the real marketplace. The whole thing was one big scam. College literary programs served as a refuge for the untalented.

And people thought that Hollywood filled that role.

I understand that art forms develop and extend beyond the bounds that originally constrained them, and we must be open to innovations, but this doesn’t mean that all bounds have vanished. The constraints still exist, minimally to define the genre and aesthetic bounds, perhaps more tightly, to define useful conventions through which artists can create compelling works.

What defines poetry? Sonic qualities. Poems must have a structure that one can hear, a structure that sets them apart from prose. If a poem has no sonic qualities, then it is prose. This means simply formatting a text to look like a poem won’t cut it. On the other hand, it also means one can read a piece of prose in a way that sounds poetic. One could also read a poem in a way that doesn’t sound poetic. It’s all in the reading. This goes back to what I said in a previous post: The medium of poetry is sound, not the written page, so maybe part of the issue with poetry is that it’s in the wrong medium?

To wrap up, I’m not trying to ridicule aspiring writers. Having written more than my share of crap, I count myself among the talentless hacks that I deride above. However, two things set me apart. First, I know I can’t ignore the structures that define the art form. Second, I know I suck. If one day my work passes my crap filter, I may let the world see it. But until then, it goes into the recycle bin where it belongs, and where it will find company with all my other creative endeavors.

If only some writers followed my lead 🙂

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