Creativity. Is it easier to work in a blank space, or from inside a box?

Posted by on August 15, 2013

I have run into this before, and when I talk about it I am surprised at the response I get.

I have always found it to be easier to be creative in a setting with constraints than with a blank page. I am able to latch on to thoughts and ideas presented within the constraint. Without the framework or starting idea, it becomes much more difficult.

Let me see if I can illustrate to you with a sample conversation:

Anne Burgess [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Anne Burgess [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Self: “Ok, brain, write a story.”

Brain: “Umm…. Hmmm… Yeah, I got nothin’. Go play a game or something to entertain me.”

Self: “Hey brain.”

Brain: “Yeah? Thought you were going to play a game or something to entertain me?”

Self: “I will. Later, ok?”

Brain: “Whatever. I’m getting bored and tired now.”

Self: “Wait! How about you write a story about a clown midget in New York who rides a pink elephant to right wrongs for the homeless?”

Brain: “Oh, you mean a story about Frank, the clown from Hoboken who’s partner Squishy the elephant was permanently died pink in a tragic cotton candy machine accident?

Sure. Let me tell you about the time Frank and Squishy were in trouble with the O’Malley’s over breaking their illegal bowling pin smuggling operation”

Self: *starts taking notes*

As my friend Mark Reed put it, after I described this situation, “Constraint breeds creativity.”

Much shorter than my example up there, and probably not as filled with circus references, but I hope you see the point. I work best when I have something to work with. It’s why I enjoy working with other people. It’s also what I enjoy having a baseline to work with.

So I found myself in this very situation just a few days ago. I wanted to write, but had no framework to catch hold of. People were asking about my next project and I had nothing.

This is what I think most people are asking about when they ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” It’s also what writers suffer when they talk about writer’s block.

I’m not going to spout anything monolithic and profound here. I’m going to tell you to think of Frank. He’s my go to guy. When I got stuck the other day, I went to my metaphorical Frank and an hour later I had a fully fledged setting for multiple stories in my head.

Frank in this case was present day Earth and the things on and in it that currently are taking my attention. The end result is a dystopian future setting where climate change, 3D printing, spaceflight, and global unrest have all come together to form a wonderful scaffolding in my mind for stories.

So if you or someone else is stuck for a story, tell them they should write a story about a clown midget in New York who rides a pink elephant to save the homeless. I bet the story ideas start popping into people’s heads.

For those of you curious, stick around and I’m sure more about the dystopian future setting will make its way here. If you want stories about Frank and Squishy, let me know. I didn’t think there was a market for that.