43 Folders

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Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

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”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Creative Constraints: Going to Jail to Get Free

A Brief Message: No Resistance Is Futile

For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn

Paul Ford has been posting six-word Twitter updates for a few weeks, and now he's also created the magnum opus of six-word criticism: sexological reviews of the 763 mp3s in this year's SxSW torrent.

Writing on (the 200-words-or-less site) A Brief Message, Paul talks about how the constraint changed his approach and his thinking:

Now when I face a new writing project, I open a spreadsheet. I want a grid to keep track of sources and dates, or to make certain that the timeline of a story makes sense. The grid imposes brevity. Relationships between sentences are exposed. Editing becomes a more explicit act of sorting, shuffling, balancing paragraphs. In this spirit, I'm rewriting some blog software to read directly from Excel. We'll see how that goes.

Yes. Constraints. As Paul shows, constraints get you thinking about the creative process in a whole new way.

Me? I ♥ constraints. 30 seconds. 5 things. Less than 140 characters.

In fact:

Twitter's making me a stronger writer. I think harder about how to say more using fewer and shorter words. Nothing beats hitting the Twoosh. (140 chars)

Let's close with a favorite quote on creative constraint from Anne Lamott's wonderful Bird by Bird. She explains that she keeps a one-inch-square picture frame on her desk to remind her of "short assignments:"

It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being.

Well put. (And only 17 characters north of the Twoosh.)

The Question to You

Got a good example of a creative constraint at work?

communicatrix's picture

If you're going to put the semantic gloves on...

I would argue that at least some of the time-delimited exercises do stimulate creativity.

As I like to twist the Toastmasters credo, "Learning to speak within the allotted time is not just a skill, it's a way to force your synapses into firing differently when you have 1 minute left to deliver 5 minutes' worth of speech."

But I see your point.

Some of my favorite exercises come from Natalie Goldberg and Julia Cameron, both writers who teach creativity. Specifically, I"m thinking of two: Julia's Morning Pages (or "AM PP", for the lazy of hand), which is three pages of mental vomiting on the page, first thing in the morning, only stopping allowed for punctuation; and Natalie's First Thoughts, which is a timed exercise. You pick the time--I like "sprints" or "etudes", but again, about blasting through blocks. And crazy stuff comes out, trust me.

Both of these are similar in that they remove (or try to) the judging, telling one's inner critic to STFU. In my own experience, this gets me the most bang-per-buck, creatively speaking. An exercise like writing without "e" would just make me nuts.

It occurs to me that a lot of games are predicated on this construct of taking something away or imposing artificial constraints: you can't say a particular word (or use any words), or you have to use the last letter of the last word to start the new one, etc. Great improvisers are crazy-creative, for sure.

Personally, I've always hated party games, and even improv, except as a rehearsal/creativity tool. I'm very competitive, but have a deathly fear of doing something wrong, so they make me panicky.

But YMMV and chacun a son gout and sh*t.




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


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