Here’s a little thought experiment for you. You’ll need a watch or timer with a second hand. You have exactly 30 seconds after reading the instructions, to see what you come up with:
Think of a story.
How did you get on? Was it easy? Difficult?
Were you pleased with the story you came up with?
Okay here’s another one. Same rules as before – 30 seconds after reading to come up with the best story you can.
Think of a story about two thieves.
How was that? Easier? Harder?
Let’s do one more. As before, you’ve got 30 seconds to make the most of the instructions.
Think of a story about two thieves. The thieves are brothers, who have spent their whole lives together. All this time, one of them has kept a secret from the other. But recently it’s become harder and harder to keep the secret. The thief with the secret is horrified to notice that it’s starting to interfere with his work – on their last job, they almost got caught because of a mistake he made. But he’s terrified that confessing the secret will destroy their relationship.
How did you get on that time? Was it easier or harder than the previous experiments?
When I’ve run this activity with a group, it is not uncommon for people to ‘draw a blank’ when they do the first experiment. Like the proverbial writer gazing at the blank page, they are stuck for inspiration. ‘Creative freedom’ is usually spoken of as a positive thing – but in this case, having total freedom to write any kind of story they like tends to paralyse people. Even if they do manage to think of something, 30 seconds isn’t long, and because they are starting from scratch to stories tend to be pretty unimpressive.
The second experiment tends to get better results. We may not like thieves, but they tend to have interesting lives. They provoke all kinds of emotions and associations. We are reminded of characters and situations from books and films. Where do they live? What do they steal? Who are their victims? Are they small-time crooks or elite criminal masterminds? Suddenly the whole genre of crime fiction is there for us to riff on. And the fact that there were two of them has all kinds of dramatic possibilities. Why are they working together? Are they part of the same gang? Do they have complimentary skills? Do they like each other, or are they sick of each others’ guts by now? Crime is a stressful business – they must have a few arguments and dustups along the way …
The third experiment usually works better still. In addition to all the great dramatic inspiration from the crime genre, most of us have either experienced sibling relationships ourselves or observed our friends and their siblings at close hand. We recognise the dramatic tension in the interplay of affection and rivalry. And we all know what it’s like to keep a secret, to be afraid that others will find out. The questions come pouring out: What’s the secret? How did he manage to hide it from his brother all this time? Why is it a problem now, when it wasn’t before? How is it affecting their relationship? Does the other thief suspect his brother? Maybe you’ve guessed it already? How is it affecting their work? What happened on that last job? How will the secret come out? Will he confess it or will it be discovered? What will happen then …?
So the more details you are given, the more images and thoughts are sparked in your mind. And the easier it becomes to make up a story. The story starts to write itself, as the details spark questions, the question spark answers and the answer spark images, characters, situations …
But the thing is, every detail that is added to the instructions takes away a little more of your creative freedom. Want to write a story about two window cleaners? Sorry. Rather write about sisters and brothers? Tough luck. Or two brothers with nothing to hide from each other? No chance.
The Value of Creative Constraints
As we saw last week, being told to ‘think outside the box’ is no guarantee of inspiration. And the thought experiments suggest that sometimes it’s easier to be creative ‘inside the box’ of details and constraints.
Could it be that creative freedom is overrated?
Ernie Schenck would answer that question with a resounding ‘Yes!’. As an Emmy Award-nominated creative director with a string of successful advertising campaigns behind him, he should know a thing or two about creativity. In his book The Houdini Solution, he shares the creative wisdom accumulated in his career and invites us to “put creativity and innovation to work by thinking INSIDE the box”:
the biggest secret of productive creative people is that they embrace obstacles, they don’t run from them. In their minds every setback is an opportunity, every limitation is a chance. Where others see a wall, they see a doorway.
Schenck draws inspiration from Harry Houdini, bound in chains and lowered into a glass box full of water. Resisting the box and fighting against the chains would have been fatal. Houdini had first to accept the reality of the constraints on his movement, and work within them to find a way out.
Another of his examples is the Apollo 13 mission, when an explosion on board caused the spacecraft to lose oxygen, electricity, light, and water 200,000 miles from planet Earth. Unless the engineers at Houston could find a solution the astronauts could implement using the materials on board, the crew would die of asphyxiation before they made it back home.
talk about thinking inside the box. You’ve got to design a new product. You’ve got to build that product. Your raw materials consist of cardboard, plastic bags, duct tape, and other low-tech materials. And, hey, just for good measure, you’ve got less than 48 hours to do it all people are going to die.
Fortunately, as we know, in this case necessity really was the mother of invention.
Schenck is scathing about “self-styled creativity guru[s]” who tell us to “think outside the box”:
if only we could free ourselves, if only we could climb out of that infernal box, they told us, we could discover our true creative selves.
And yet for millions of us, those boxes are very real. Almost everything in our lives is a box. Our relationships. Our jobs. Where we live. How young or old we are. Our bank accounts. They’re all boxes. They all have walls. They all have boundaries. But they are not all bad.
So next time you feel frustrated by constraints that limit your options – take a deep breath, centre yourself like Houdini, and start looking for the creative opportunity…
Over to You
What did the thought experiments tell you about your own creativity?
When starting a new project, would you rather have complete freedom or a few pointers as ‘building blocks’ to help you get started?
Can you think of a time when rules and/or constraints helped to spark your creativity?
Do you agree with Michelangelo that “art lives on constraint and dies of freedom”?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.