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 continues
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

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 constraint. 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).

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)

Changing constraints

Any change in constraints affects creativity


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.


Boden adds
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
Tim Love

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