Boundaries and creativity

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People often talk about creativity as a chaotic thing, all about freedom. But I’m not convinced. For me, limitations and boundaries are the real source of inspiration.

Look, I saw a thing!
Look, I saw a thing!

A few years ago, Mrs K and I picked up a book of creative brain-stretching exercises from a charity shop. One of them was to take photographs of ten boundaries. We were on holiday in York at the time, and it seemed like it might be fun, so we looked for boundaries as we wandered around the town. We found fences and doorways, road-signs and boot-scrapers, and dozens of other objects marking the limits of things, not least the city walls of York itself. And I noticed something as we did this. All of those boundaries restricted people, but in doing so they also permitted and enabled. Double yellow lines might stop people parking where they want to, but they also help traffic to keep flowing. Without a cup to restrict my coffee, I wouldn’t be able to drink it.

Mm, tasty boundaries
Mm, tasty boundaries

The same thing applies in my writing. If I sit down without any restrictions, without a word count or a genre to work towards, I can do anything. But that doesn’t give me any focus. Whereas writing for a themed anthology, where I need to fit that theme, that gives me a starting point, a limitation, something to play off. Whether that’s a flash story on mutant worms or five thousand words on cheese-making in space, it gives me focus and it gives me ideas. Those limitations inspire me.

York city walls - really rather inspiring
York city walls – really rather inspiring

Obviously, there’s something of a balancing act to this. Without any freedom you’re not creating, just repeating. But I think that we under-estimate the value of limitations in art. Even on the most basic level, it’s the rules of language – spelling, grammar, meanings of words – that give us tools to write with. Creativity doesn’t usually involve breaking those rules, but instead finding new ways to use them.

What do you think? What limitations do you find helpful or unhelpful? Do you believe in creativity as chaos? As always, I’m interested to know, so please comment below.