Limitations and Creativity
Recently I wrote a story for someone I know who has Trypophobia – the fear of closely packed holes. The story turned out well and I’ll probably end up selling it in the near future, and this got me thinking about something Stephen Graham Jones said in one of his ‘on writing essays.’ I can’t remember the exact quote but it was something about how he always likes to accept deadlines because it reminds him that at the end of the day he’s a writer, and that he should be able to write a certain type of story to a specific length by a specific time.
It’s the same kind of ‘craftsman’ mentality that Stephen King subscribes to, when he says in On Writing that building novels is just like laying pipe or driving long haul trucks. And it’s the same idea that Steven Pressfield talks about in The War of Art.
In the past I’ve felt a mild resistance to writing according to a limitation or specific topic. Instinctively I don’t like having someone else tell me what to write. Like when every year every magazine starts asking for stories themed for Halloween, and then later for Christmas.
But I’ve come to realise that, if you’re actually good, it shouldn’t matter what topic you write on. A truly good writer could produce 100 stories, all of them Christmas themed, and all of them perfectly original. Stephen King wrote a vampire novel and a haunted hotel novel and they were both excellent. Stephen Graham Jones recently wrote a werewolf novel, Mongrels, and it was completely original and unique to him. Werewolves are one of the most done and re-done topics in all of horror literature.
The lesson is that limitations do not inhibit creativity: they actually encourage it. This is one of the reasons I’ve come to favour The Heroes Journey and the classic three-act structure. I love constraints. These days, I pursue limitation. I like that I can ask someone what their biggest fear is, and write a story around it, and the story actually works. It’s satisfying, like having a friend tell you they really need a car, and you build one for them and it runs well.
To find your voice, to make an idea into your idea, something that no one else on earth could write but you – the same way no one on earth could have written Oliver Twist but Dickens – you have to impose limitations.
If you need a good example, there’s a story by Adam Nevill in his collection of shorts called Some Will Not Sleep. I believe it’s the one called ‘Where Angels Come In’. It’s damn good, and it’s also founded on the most basic and unoriginal premise imaginable: two kids explore a haunted house. I mean, really? You couldn’t get less original than that! And yet, it’s a great and original story, because it’s told in a way that only Adam Nevill could tell it. The dread, the shifting of things just out of sight, the (no spoiler) ending had his name written all over it, and as a result this most basic of premises, in his hands, becomes a completely unique tale.