The Creative Power of Restrictions


There’s nothing quite as daunting as a blank page. Gasp! That void could be filled with anything. Or everything. Or nothing. The emptiness stymies. It taunts. It goads.

According to Stephen Sondheim, restrictions can unleash creativity. It seems counter-intuitive. Absolute freedom seems as if it should loosen us up, but what gets us going are boundaries to bounce against.

Powerful Restrictions

  • Name a theme.
  • Set a word limit.
  • Pick a genre.
  • Add a deadline.
  • Break a rule consistently.
  • Enter a competition.
  • Play word games (five-word sentences; narrative through dialogue only; no adjectives; no words beginning with A; create palindromes; play with a literary device).

All of these restrictions make it easier to get started and keep going.

Poetry and flash fiction are excellent writing practice for this reason. Both challenge the writer on with their super-tight restrictions (especially if the poetry you’re writing has a form rather than free verse.)

Restrictions give you a point.

Over to You

What’s your favourite creativity-sparking restriction? Please share in the content.

New Series: Grateful 4

Grateful 4 The Journey

Grateful 4 The Journey

My writer-friend Rebecca Sheraton sent me a link to a blog post she knew I should read. It’s great to have a writing buddy who has your back and shares inspiring blog posts.

The article encourages writers to celebrate the small stuff. Rather than focussing solely on the big wins — the contracts, the launches, the book in your hands, blogger and author Julie Hedlund advocates savouring every little step the journey. I scrolled on to read some of her other posts only to discover she writes a regular Sunday Gratitude article. Bingo!

That little flash of inspiration has spawned this, the first in my new series, Grateful 4. I will regularly (but not too frequently) share four things I’m grateful for and encourage readers to share something too. I’ll hashtag it #Gr8ful4 so you can join in!

Without further ado, here are this month’s Grateful 4.

1 – Inspirational Art Teachers

Grateful 4 Quirky Girls & Their Art

Grateful 4 Quirky Girls & Their Art

I have often said that I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for the teachers in my youth. My high school art teacher, Sister Leonardine, always gets a special mention.

That was a  L-O-N-G time ago. Now I have three highly creative daughters, and like me, they’ve been blessed to have the most wonderful team of art teachers mentor them through their secondary education. All three girls have their own style, which was nurtured by their beautiful art instructors. A big shout out to Lyn, Barb, Catherine, and Kathy.

#Gr8ful4 Art Teachers

Grateful 4 Art Teachers

My youngest daughter won an award last weekend, the Creative Generation Excellence Award. It’s a big deal in Queensland. The winners’ art goes on tour to be displayed in various galleries around the state, eventually finishing up at GOMA in Brisbane next year. Very few artists can say their work was shown in the Gallery of Modern Art! Part of the prize is a place in a silversmithing workshop with the other winners. I’m so proud of her achievement.

I’m fully aware that it is also her teachers’ achievement. They entered four students from the school, and all four placed. Two won excellence awards, and the other two were highly commended. The fact that all four students were honoured says something tremendous about the teachers.

I am grateful for their input into and influence on my daughters’ lives.

2 – The playful hearts and minds of children

Grateful 4 Eager little writers

Grateful 4 Eager Little Writers

I am so fortunate. I have a great job, and I work with wonderful people. Of all the rewarding jobs someone could have, school counselling would have to be near the top. Yes, yes, it has its challenges, but that’s a topic for another day. This past week, I got to spend some time with little kids. It happens occasionally. So occasionally, that when I do get to hang out with them, I’m blown away by their gorgeous little smiles and their great big malleable hearts. It’s so refreshing to be reminded to play.

In addition to some counselling work with younger children, I ran a writing workshop. Gosh, those little writers were a joy! So enthusiastic. With the slightest inspiration from me, they started gushing out stories. They were mini geysers of creativity, bursting for release. They had fun. I had fun. It was awesome.

I’m so grateful for the opportunity to work with children.

3 – My tribe

Being part of a small community of like-minded souls is such a wonderful privilege. If I am rich in anything, I am rich in this. My workplace is such a place, and I’m lucky enough to also be a part of a vibrant group of writers. Brisbane WriteLinks is a lovely group of writers and illustrators of children’s books. These people inspire me; they stretch me; and, as I discovered this week, they comfort me.

#Gr8ful4 Rejection Letters by CWallis

Grateful 4  Friends to share sorrow with

This week, my email inbox did overtime delivering bad news. I got not one but three knock-backs in one week. After several years of writing and submitting professionally, rejection letters are “Meh, par for the course.” I know it’s all part of the publication process. Every writer gets them. JK Rowling famously got a gazillion before someone finally snapped up the first Harry Potter manuscript. They’re your dues, your chops, your apprenticeship. Yada, yada, yada.

I know all that, and I also know that knowing it isn’t a talisman against the sting. Most days, I can let the rejection wash over me, but there are moments when the disappointment can’t be swallowed down.

The first bit of news this week was like that. Form rejection letters are the worst. Hours of toil go into crafting query letters, so to get a one-sentence “Dear Author” letter in return is pretty bleak.

I tried all day to shrug off the disappointment, but it was about my baby, my brand new work. I couldn’t. So I reached out to my tribe, a bunch of writers who ride on the same rocky roller coaster.

“I need a group hug,” I said on our FaceBook group page. They were so sweet. Though we mostly inspire one another with good news of breakthroughs, they were ready to commiserate and encourage. I haven’t mentioned the third No-Thanks to them. They’ll think I’m bragging…

I’m so grateful for the support of my writer-friends.

4 – My Readers, Followers, and Cheerleaders

#Gr8ful4 Likes by KSayer

Grateful 4 Readers and Supporters

I follow this guy on Twitter who has something like 59,000 followers. What the? Chuck Wendig has 8,300 subscribers to his blog. Those are impressive numbers, which translate to enviable readerships. I have to admit I don’t really get people who have thousands of friends on FaceBook. Why?

Ever heard of Klout? It’s a web service that rates your Influence (with a capital I) based on an aggregate of your social media interactions. Klout gives users a score between 0 and 100. Barack Obama is 99. Justin Bieber is (*not that I care*) 92. I’ve never bothered to get my Klout score, because I’d rather not be on the same spectrum as Justin B and, more to the point, it would only prove what I already know: I am, despite being a regular user of many social media platforms, a small fry lost in cyberspace in comparison to the hot dogs of the social media cosmos.

And one more thing against Klout: For whatever reason, Klout doesn’t consider Pinterest worthy of Influence, and that’s where I’m smokin! (Sort of. Whatever. I’d rather have a few meaningful interactions than millions of vapid ones).

Here’s the thing: I’m not crying about not having a huge following. Instead,

  • I am grateful for the 172 people (the majority are personal RL friends) who like my Facebook Page and for the half-dozen of them who regularly like my posts.
  • I’m grateful for the 870 people who read my tweets and the couple who retweet me.
  • The 1700 fellow pinners who follow my boards on Pinterest rock.
  • Most of all, I’m grateful for the 153 people who have subscribed to this blog and the handful of faithfuls who read and comment. If you’ve read this far, here’s a big cyber hug for you!
Grateful 4 Bear Hugs!

Grateful 4 Bear Hugs!

Most of all, I’m grateful for the people in my immediate world who encourage me in my writing. I have friends and colleagues who regularly ask how things are progressing. My husband is the best. He fully believes in my eventual success and supports my dreams, even though it means I’m often vague, distracted by my pixie-muse.

I’m grateful for readers and supporters of dreams.

Over to You

What are you grateful for? Share something in the comments! Don’t forget to share on Twitter with #Gr8ful4.

Image Credits

Gratitude Road by Bart Maguire, CC-BY-ND-NC 2.0

Sweet Sorrow by Caro Wallis, CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Facebook Infection by Katie Sayer, CC BY-SA 2.0

Teddy Bear Cloud by Robert Huffstutter, CC 2.0

Writing With Your Feet

Writing with your feet - S Papaspyropoulos

Every occupation has its hazards, from the moral injury of soldiers to the everyday burnout of teachers. Tilers suffer bad backs, and hairdressers are prone to carpal tunnel syndrome. Nurses and counsellors succumb to compassion fatigue.

Even writing comes with a catalogue of complaints. Authors are the masseuse’s best clients, with their cricked necks, tight shoulders, and lower back pain from too much sitting. Endless staring at bright screens leads to eyestrain, headache, and sleeplessness. And then there’s the author’s bane: writer’s block.

Put Away the Pen; Pull on the Boots

No need to pop pills or guzzle booze. Writers can walk their way to health and creativity. Walking does wonders to loosen hunched up shoulders and compressed organs. Walking is aerobic, so it oxygenates the blood and refreshes the brain. It causes the  release of endorphin, the balancing of cortisol levels, and improvement of brain function.

The benefits of walking go beyond the physiological realm. Researchers have proved that walking uncramps the imagination, making it the perfect antidote to the dreaded writer’s block. A 2014 study at Stanford University showed walking boosts creative ideation. You read that right: walking enhances creativity!

The Stanford study is recent, but this is old-world wisdom. Dickens, Woolf, and Stevenson were avid walkers, but William Wordsworth left them in his dust, clocking in an estimated one hundred and eighty thousand miles in his lifetime.

“How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live!” –Henry David Thoreau

Old Old School

Lyceum of Athens - J NorrisLong before these literary giants rambled, the great teachers of Antiquity used walking to promote learning. In ancient Greece, lessons at the Peripatetic School happened while meandering among the colonnades of the Lyceum of Athens.

Ever heard of the Method of Loci? It’s a mnemonic device that uses memorized spatial relationships to order and recollect the things you’ve learned, and it came from this method of learning while walking along a familiar route or through a well-known building. Greek and Roman orators used the technique to help deliver long speeches without notes. I’ve experienced this with audio books. If I re-listen to a section of a book, I can automatically recall where I was when I heard the passage the last time. It’s kind of freaky.

Memorization is one thing; creativity is another. A contemporary of Plato and Socrates named Diogenes summed up the power of walking:

 Solvitur ambulando. It is solved by walking.

That little Latin lesson is worth remembering if writer’s block strikes.

Authorial Ambulation

Maximise the benefits of walking with a few steps of preparation. Do take a notebook and pencil (or a recording device*), but don’t take the dog. Keep writerly perambulation free of distractions (even the cute K-9 variety). Vary your routes, and don’t be afraid to focus your walk by honing in on a plot problem before you set off.

Give the fingers a break, and let your feet do the writing. Your body will thank you, and your writing will be blessed.


* Apps for Writers *

Dragon Dictation is a voice recognition app for your phone, tablet, or laptop. It records and converts your message to text, saving you a step of transcribing your notes.

CC 2.0 Image Credits

Girl Walking by Spyros Papaspyropoulos

The Athens School by Justin Norris

N.B.: This post was submitted as an assignment in a MOOC.