I was sitting in a small auditorium on the campus at Hamline University, listening to a young poet named Li-Young Lee. He was a wild and brilliant writer, incomprehensible to me most of the time. But as a speaker, he was amazingly clear, and one thing he said has always stuck with me. In discussing the abstract idea of contradiction, he said, "As an architect, the best way to communicate 'space' is to enclose it." If I remember right, to illustrate his point, he cited Grand Central Station.
Over time, I've shortened my interpretation of that insight to simply this: Creativity is born of restriction. Yes, popular culture is awash in stories and images of artists who only bloom when they shake the shackles of oppression--political, religious, cultural, mostly familial. And those who deal with creative types constantly hear them whine (often justifiably so) about being too restricted. But if you doubt that restriction is absolutely essential to creativity, keep in mind that poets themselves created the insane constraints of the haiku.
In my own experience, I've witnessed it several times. The song I use as the soundtrack for my Conk Creative website: We had just enough studio time left for one live take, and it turned out to be the most popular track on our CD (despite my sloppy guitar playing). The screenplay I recently optioned: I sputtered for more than a year until I decided that I had to complete a draft in time for a contest deadline. Even with this blog, I created the "CC Pick 3" email in part because I knew it would force me to publish at least three posts a month (this is number three for May). And keep in mind that pop songs and screenplays are already two of the most highly structured vehicles in their creative families. The latter is mandated to be written in three acts, not to exceed 120 pages in 12-pt. Courier font, with margins of 1.5 inches on the left, 1 inch on the right, top and bottom.
Most recently, I've enrolled for the 48 Hour Film Project, a contest in which you draw a genre out of a hat, then have 48 hours to create a film longer than four minutes, but less than seven minutes. We'll see if this level of restriction proves to be oppressive, liberating or both. (Note to clients: This post should have no bearing on setting deadlines for future projects...)