And Your Chains Shall Set You Free

6 AM on a Monday morning! Woo! Another week! Let’s do it!

(I am not actually that chipper. For some reason, blogging makes me want to type things like this. Probably a sign of dementia.)


I’ve been thinking this morning about creative freedom. One of the great things about art is that it’s totally unbounded. The scenes you paint, the poems you write, are limited only by your imagination. Freedom’s a good thing, right?

Yeah, it is. Mostly.

But I’m struck by the way many artists actually produce better work when you take away that unbounded universe, when you box them into a creative corner.

Just look at the first Star Trek movie, Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Or rather, don’t, because it pretty much sucks. The creators had a massive $46 million budget to work with, and they poured it into elaborate special effects, ending up with long, boring sequences of the Enterprise flying through one bizarre background after another, while the plot suffocates.

Burned by the failure, executives only allowed an $11 million budget for the second film. And guess what? Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was a much better movie for it, with a focus on what really mattered: strong characters and a good story.

Of course, small-budget movies can still be bad, just as big-budget movies can be fantastic. But it seems to me that creative restrictions, far from stifling the artistic spirit, can actually sharpen it, give it focus.

I see it myself when I write sonnets. The sonnet is a fairly demanding form: fourteen lines, iambic pentameter, set rhyme schemes, a change in tone after the eighth line. Yet all these seemingly harsh and arbitrary rules work to the poet’s advantage. The fourteen-line limit forces you to pack in meaning, making every line count. Rhyme and meter make you reach out to interesting, unusual words you wouldn’t otherwise try. And the eighth-line volta ensures you don’t get complacent, asking that you tackle your subject from at least two different angles.

Shakespeare wrote all his plays in iambic pentameter, and you don’t hear him complaining. Probably because he’s dead, but still.

Time is another great motivator. Having just forty minutes each morning to write a post means I can’t indulge my inner perfectionist too much. I can’t toy with ideas forever, searching for just the right words. I have to hit Publish. And when I do, I often find that the most successful posts are the ones that seemed least “perfect” at the time.

Death, of course, is the ultimate deadline. Believe me, I’d take immortality pills if they sold them at Kroger. But I think the world gets much better art without them.

Just ask Shakespeare.

What do you think? Do you produce better work under a deadline, or other restrictions? Or are you blue sky all the way?

(Originally I wrote “Do you produce better wok…” Most delicious typo ever.)

2 responses to “And Your Chains Shall Set You Free

  1. I’m hungry for chinese now.

    I agree. I think this is why when I’m never as motivated and focused as I am a hour or even minutes from a deadline. My mind sharpens and my full attention is on the task at hand.

    Whether the quality is better because of it, I’m not quite sure.

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