Creativity and constraints (draft)
The connection between creativity and constraints has been often
been discussed. In
creativity and unpredictability from "SEHR, volume 4, issue 2: Constructions of the Mind, Updated 4 June 1995" Margaret Boden points out that
"At the heart of creativity lie constraints". She asks "How can one
distinguish creativity from (mere) novelty?" and suggests that
To justify calling an idea creative, then, one must specify the particular set of generative principles - what one might call the conceptual space - with respect to which it is impossible.
Constraints define what is impossible - i.e. "outside the box". She
The "mapping" of a conceptual space involves the representation, whether at conscious or unconscious levels, of its structural features.
Much as a real map helps a traveller to find - and to modify - his route, so mental maps enable us to explore and transform our conceptual spaces in imaginative ways.
The mapping defines the conceptual space - the box; the constraints. In this
article the focus will be on writing (in particular poetry) and
how the type, source and timing of constraints affects creativity.
Type of constraints
Science/Math work within the verifiable. Many artists are
free of that constraint - the success of a work can't always be judged by
recourse to Truth or Beauty. Constraints are often self-imposed
- Form - e.g. sonnet. A generative rule that determines some aspect of the work
- Mode - e.g. Realism. A constraint on the meaning or the mode of representation
- Genre - A constraint on content. E.g. some pieces require happy endings
Source of constraint
When writers think "outside the box" what chance is there that readers
will have the same box in mind? It partly depends on the source of the
Writers often welcome constraints. Rhyming for example not only
helps a writer get from one line to the next, it can bring to
mind words which might otherwise not have been considered ("the need for rhyme makes a writer mix in the mind registers and topic fields in an unpredictable way and this enables surprising and imaginative expressions to be developed", Peter Dale, "An Introduction to Rhyme", Agenda/Bellew, 1998).
- From within - is creating a constraint (inventing a new form) an act of creation?
- Adopting a known form - e.g. a sestina (shared knowledge; something readers should recognise)
- Tacit - writers can be unaware of the contraints they're working under
- sometimes readers are more aware of these constraints than writers are
Form offers a challenge to spur the writer. For the reader it creates a pattern of expectation that the author can thwart or satisfy.
Oulipo artists say that
they create their own constraints so that they're less affected by
tacit pressures ("if an author does not define his or her constraint, the constraint will in turn define their work for them") .
Artists are as free as the society they're conditioned by, or the expectation of the audience. One way to escape is to use Random procedures (Burroughs)
Any change in constraints affects creativity
- Adding (maybe by transfer from another medium). A fugue from music can be transferred to literature
- Remove. SF removes some constraints, though it's often suggested that
only one major counterfactual should be introduced, the rest of the story
proceeding realistically from this)
- Negate - going from "poems must rhyme" to "poems mustn't rhyme"
- Relax (even Shakespeare's sonnets don't all have 14 lines)
- Modify (the sestina form can be extended so that it's not based on 6-line stanzas)
When does the constraint kick in?
Delaying a test can be helpful when brain-storming. Dirac said that if a choice between
beauty and truth, prefer beauty.
The constraints of music, complex though they are, are more amenable to definition than those involved in literature. Here, many rich conceptual spaces have to be negotiated simultaneously.
It is not surprising, then, if literary programs are not as impressive as some musical programs are.
Updated March 2007
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