Writing Quote

"Don't write merely to be understood.
Write so that you can't possibly be misunderstood."
-Robert Louis Stevenson

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Absolute creative freedom

is perhaps not all its cracked up to be. If you gave a child an entire roomful of toys, the child will probably not play with each toy, and will only use those he plays with in one or two ways, and only for a limited amount of time. Give that same child only one, seemingly uninteresting toy, and he will spend hours coming up with dozens of different ways to play with it. If you've ever seen a child with a box, you know what I mean. Being limited to only one toy forces the child to be creative. In the same way, if a writer begins a project with no direction, no parameters, no limitations, endless possibilities, she'll be overloaded. To cope with the overload, she is very likely to stick with something she knows, maybe reproducing a basic story outline she's already familiar with. She may come up with a few great ideas, a fabulous character or two, etc. But she's going to create limitations for herself that comfort her, and make her feel safe enough to explore in one or two areas.
On the other hand, if she begins by setting some guidelines for herself right from the start, she'll be forced to get all-kinds-of creative in order to stick within those parameters. For instance, if you were not allowed to use the letter 'p' in telling a story, you would have to find some pretty interesting ways to tell it. At the very least, you would have to be creative in your word usage.
I don't subscribe to the idea that if you follow steps A,B,C and D, you'll end up with a best selling novel and a million dollar movie deal. But neither do I believe that absolute, unrestricted freedom is as conducive to creativity as a few well-placed parameters. Of course, this is just a theory of mine.

Does anybody have any experiences with writing restrictions they'd be willing to share?

1 comment:

  1. At the risk of rambling on, I have some thoughts on this topic.

    I’m reminded of the difference between formal poetry and free verse. Formal poetry operates under the principle that imposed limitations—of rhyme scheme or beats per stanza or number of lines or whatever—forces the writer to go to places s/he wouldn’t think to go otherwise. I lik that. Maybe this is the reason why the only poetic form I’ve ever had fun with writing is the sestina (a crazy, anal form that only crazy, anal writers would ever attempt). With free verse, where more or less anything goes, I have trouble understanding what makes a good poem or not.

    With fiction the same ideas are true but they’re maybe harder to see. Choices about point of view, number of characters, chapter breaks etc are all part of the self-imposed order the writer puts on the story. But are those limitation figured out ahead of time or do they grow out of the story itself? A bit of both, I’d say—and the trick is to recognize when they are being helpful, and when they’re hampering you. Random POV shifts are a nightmare, but that doesn’t mean there might not be the perfect moment to go into another character’s head for a while.

    I’ll give an example from my own book Fallen. I knew early on that there were four main characters, and that each character would get a section focusing on him or her. After that, I quickly came up with a set of “ground rules” for the book.

    1. each character’s section would be made up the same number of chapters as each of the the other characters’.
    2. Each character’s chapters would have the same titles as the other characters’.

    The reason for 1.) was that I wanted each character to have roughly the same amount of time “on stage” as the others. The reason for 2.) was that I wanted to stress, thamatically, how certain events recur over and over through time, how the children repeat their parents’ mistakes, and so on. So each character was to have a chapter called “The Conversation,” “The Son,” “The Murder,” etc.

    Some interesting things happened during the writing of the book.

    First of all, I did manage to give each character the same number of chapters—but that number fluctuated wildly, from eight to seven to nine to ten to eight to ten again. Of course, in order to maintain my equanimity among characters, I had to subtract (or add) chapters to each character every time I made a change to one of them. Surprisingly, this was less hard than it sounds. And I was committed enough to the idea that each character should be equal to the others that I was willing to wrestle a bit to make sure everyone ended with the same number of chapters.

    However, halfway through the book my second goal became unworkable. Although there were certainly similarities among the plot threads for each character, at some point it felt very artificial to give everyone identically-named chapters. So I dropped that idea. Some chapter titles do indeed repeat themselves, but others are unique to each character, while others are similar enough to echo other events in the book without exactly copying them (“Thirty Years Previous” becomes “Thee Years Previous,” etc). In this way I tried to keep the thematic idea of circularity without being locked into an artificial construct of chapter titles.

    Ultimately, I think this is what your decision must be based on: what works best for the story and what doesn’t. What feels natural should stay, and what feels phony has to go. When certain “ground rules” seem necessary, so go ahead and impose them. But they’re only useful as long as they serve the story, and the moment they become arbitrary restrictions for their own sake, I say let ’em go…

    Thanks for letting me chatter. I hope this was at least interesting, if not particularly illuminating!