Creativity and Constraints

As I launch into fiction writing, I’ve been reading Robert McKee’s Story as a guide to the principles of good narrative. I just came across the following passage that is part of his discussion of the importance of defining a clear setting for one’s story—the period, duration, location, and level of conflict exhibited in the story:

“Limitation is vital. The first step toward a well-told story is to create a small, knowable world. Artists by nature crave freedom, so the principle that the structure/setting relationship restricts creative choices may stir the rebel in you. With a closer look, however, you’ll see that this relationship couldn’t be more positive. The constraint that setting imposes on story design doesn’t inhibit creativity; it inspires it.” (71)

This passage rings true to me. It seems to me a myth about creativity that it is best nurtured by boundless freedom. When I was young I occasionally tried my hand at drawing. I can remember times when I was set up to draw, pencil in hand, sketch pad in front of me, and the blank page was paralyzing. In these times, I hadn’t come to draw with some idea in mind; rather, I had just come wanting to draw. But, the lack of constraints on what I might draw was too much. In these times I’d either advert to drawing a mountainous landscape—to me, one of the most beautiful and technically forgiving things a person could draw (who’s to judge whether my mountain could really look that way?)—or I’d abandon the project altogether.

These times contrasted sharply with my eleventh-grade art classes, in which my teacher would invariably give us an assignment with certain boundaries. Whether the project was a self-portrait or a drawing of a vegetable, at least I had a path to run on, something to go after. And within these boundaries I could make creative decisions that fit. If McKee is right, establishing initial constraints on one’s creativity has an important role in many forms of art (maybe all of them?), including the writing of fiction.

What do you think?

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