The Freedom of Self-Imposed Constraints

If it is true that nothing is more terrifying for an artist/creative than the blank canvas or blank page, then it may also be true that the faster we get something on there, the more quickly we can free ourselves from such terror.

Before I learned to write every day, I spent about a decade either trying to write for too long (as if I could finish my opus in a month or something) or putting it off and feeling sick ––and who wouldn’t, with stakes and expectations so unrelentingly high? I started and stopped what I was trying to make a practice, more times than I can count.  Needless to say, I rarely finished anything. 

Write to save your life, is one prompt that I would never give to a student. But that’s exactly what I did to myself when I was trying to “be a writer” then. I was full of a destructive sort of “no pain, no gain” mentality, which I thought meant you were “serious.” If the point is to talk about the dramatic moment staying up all night, I suppose it could be effective. But if the point is to develop something lasting and long term, such as a body of work over a lifetime, it’s disastrous. In high school and college, I tended to apply the same model to my athletic training, and as a result, I was chronically injured and unable to compete for numerous seasons. 

I suspect that I was at least partially influenced by the incredible expectations I was feeling, from many areas of dominant culture, about the supremacy of youth. A writer I admired once said to a class, “If you haven’t made it happen by twenty-six, forget it,” and while there must have been some context for this, it was lost on me, and all I could feel after graduation was the pressure of “It,” and I think Stephen King made a brilliant choice for a title of one of his most well-known horror novels. Turning a creative impulse into an “It” is a great way to create a lot of drama, but it’s a horror and a disaster to live through. I had no practice to sustain any creative “vision” I could dream, and I had yet to learn that the daily practice of growing the work over time was what I really wanted. It’s much less glamorous, much more accessible, and much more sustaining.  

Then I stumbled on the idea of 15 minutes a day. Then 3 pages. Then I tried adding one hour in the evenings. Now there’s no drama about whether or not writing is going to happen. It’s no longer a big deal. It just does. To learn this, I needed to limit my expectations. This meant being humble, honest, and patient. I had to drop the unreasonable vague product-oriented timeline, and just grow. Not so I could be some superstar, but so I could live. 

 “Waiting for Summer” by Nicholas Erwin on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license

I keep having to adjust the parameters and re-teach myself this lesson. When I started this daily blog project, it was a big step for me. I noticed that while the posts were generally short (the sort of thing that could be drafted in 15-20 minutes or less) I could easily not get them done until late in the day because I would decide I wasn’t “ready” or “didn’t have an idea.” In summer and in-between writing projects this might work, but in a few weeks, I am going to revert to my “normal” schedule with all of its typical demands and then some, plus I’ve added this. Plus I want to begin work on a new manuscript soon. I realized I had a choice: either plan on being unable to sustain it at some point or make a strict limit. So now I am limited to 15 minutes to think, 15 to write, and the rest of an hour to type, find (most) typos, add links and an image, and post. That’s it. Some are better than others, but all are the best I can do in a given time frame. No time for grand ideas or clever concepts. Just a daily offering, and no longer a big deal. I’ve scaled down my expectations some to make it so, and now I do not have a doubt that I can do it for a year (then two, three, and so on . . .), even during very hectic days. If all I have to work with is an hour, and it gets sidelined in the morning, I’ll find it later. But usually, I can control the early morning, so most days this is doable.  

Since trying this, I’ve noticed that I’m already able to dream other projects more fully, because my mental space is freed up after my morning post. I’ve been more relaxed, and I am learning to trust that something can always be made “from scratch” the next day. This post is written on a day that I admittedly have “no new ideas,” just this thing I was noticing all last week, after implementing a new constraint, which now limits my ability to plan on finding a “better idea.”

If it is true that nothing is more terrifying for an artist/creative than the blank canvas or blank page, then it may also be true that the faster we get something on there, the more quickly we can free ourselves from such terror. What comes after that is so much more interesting, anyway. 

Here are some constraints I like to use:
•    Set a timer for 15 minutes. Pick up pen. Write. Stop at timer (unless you really can’t). Notice how fast the time went. 
•    Limit a daily exercise to something relevant to the history of a given day.
•    Prompts like this: In today’s short piece, include a childhood object, a famous dead person, and a favorite activity.
•    Start writing. Don’t stop till you fill 3 pages. No lifting pen off page. 
•    Write one page in the voice of _______________.
•    Open the dictionary at random. Choose the first word you see. Write it down (if you don’t know what it means, include the definition). Repeat five times. Now write a short exercise using all 5 words.
•    [for late afternoon sessions] Take a snack with you to the writing table. Don’t make dinner until you do this (short) thing. 

Lesson learned––again. Constraints are freeing and they allow me to focus. They teach and re-teach me to overcome paralysis of thinking. And they are a lot more fun than wondering what to do and listening to that nagging voice insisting that it isn’t good enough. 

Author: Stacey C. Johnson

I am here to wonder out loud. The point is not to get a clear answer, a complete picture, but to remember how incomplete the picture is, to embrace the process once again, of discovery, of questions, to notice the stirrings of wonder. To leave crumbs behind, for the next traveler.

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