A Cure for Writer’s Block: Constraint & Creativity

By: Francesca Ferrauto

Illustration by: Madeline Forrey

So, you’ve decided you want to be a writer? You should know that the only thing that makes you a writer is writing. Then: write! You fool.

It sounds like an easy thing to do, to follow one’s dreams and write one’s heart away. Yet many books go unwritten, many writers go undiscovered, due to the tyranny of one silent ruler who holds us all captive: inspiration. Looking around on the battlefield of creativity, I can see my companions fall one after the other, waiting aimlessly for the promised encounter with their muse, who, time and time again, fails to show up. Inevitably, they give up on their craft and their dreams.

For years, I believed that a lack of inspiration equaled a lack of talent until I too was caught by the most terrible disease an artist could be infected with: writer’s block. It took me by the jugular and choked my words one by one, tossed me into depression and left me coughing up my dreams on the floor. It is an excruciating pain that many before me have experienced, and yet no one has found a cure for the illness.

Or did they?

A group of mostly French-speaking men, in the 1960s, theorized that inspiration wasn’t necessary to create good literature. They called themselves Oulipo — Ouvroir de littérature potentielle — and their theories survive to this date. Oulipians applied linguistic structures and other forms of constraints to their writing in order to unleash their imagination. The most common oulipian exercise is the N+7: it requires every noun in a text to be replaced with the seventh one following it in the dictionary. There are many other imposed structural constraint examples, some of which are the snowball technique, the lipogram, and the prisoner’s constraint. The point is that oulipians were convinced that by imposing constraints, they could expand their creative potential.

The link between constraint and creativity has been widely discussed since then by the writing community, amongst them, the famous linguist, Noam Chomsky. The most well-known novel written about the exploitation of constraints is namely, Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec, but my personal favorite is If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino. When I first tried reading these titles, I made the mistake of trying to read them through the traditional lens I was taught throughout my education: is the plot consistent? But this is very far from what the oulipians wanted to achieve. Rather, they wanted to show that literature holds a bigger potential if we look at things from an entirely different perspective and work from those new points of view. From an oulipian perspective, a text created through the trickery of constraints holds as much value as a text created thanks to old-fashioned inspiration.

Constraint writing is a literary exercise that requires commitment and a hell of a lot of imagination. Whether the result of these exercises is to our liking or not, the reader should be warned against judging a rule-based text and a free-written one with the same standards: it would be unfair and meaningless, because they were created we two completely different purposes.

The constraints and rituals that one decides to write with are arbitrary and there is no one checking if they are being respected or not. It requires self-control and self-restraint, but when it is all driven by the oulipian philosophy, you could come away with a surprising sense of liberation. My personal take on the oulipian philosophy is that we are already subjected to constraints from a biological, linguistic, cultural, and social point of view, we’re simply not aware of it, which means we can’t exploit these constraint to our benefit. Choosing freely our constraints might spark a different kind of inspired freedom.

In short, through choosing a heavily constrained writing path, we as creators drastically reduce the hundreds of possible choices at our disposal; we’re freed from the anxiety linked to choice. Our thought process can’t always follow the irregularity and unpredictability of inspiration, but rather seeks to solve problems. Let’s take the example of Italo Calvino and his novel If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, a book made entirely by first chapters. Calvino had been struggling with writer’s block for years before this novel was published. He seemed unable to finish a story. What he decided to do was follow his newly-found writing style, rather than dwelling on his depression. He took charge of his own voice and created a piece of work that no one had ever seen before.

Is the plot consistent? Maybe not. Does that make this piece of literature less outstanding? Absolutely not.

I can almost see him, sitting at his desk, following his thoughts as they jumped from one story to the next, from one plot, land, character to another. After years spent fighting with his own voice, trying to shape it into what it was not, he simply took a leap of faith and followed his apparently incoherent narrative. His job as a writer was then to simply make a book out of it, to link the pieces of the puzzle together, allowing the various stories to become one: and so he did.

Naturally, this is all speculation and I never met Mr. Calvino. Nonetheless, it’s helped me quite a lot. When I return to the battlefield of creativity, I find that my muse had been waiting all along for me; I simply wasn’t looking in the right direction. Stripped down from its philosophical value, the oulipian use of constraints can be found in all those self-help guides targeted to all those lost writers out there.

You’ll find advice such as “set a fixed time and place to write,” “use a timer and write whatever comes to mind,” “force yourself to write at least 500 words a day” and so on and so forth. The idea of limiting your endless spectrum of choices might be the right path out of the writer’s block, even if we choose not to follow the oulipian method.

Creativity is triggered by different things and who are we to judge how a fellow creator interacts with their craft. What I take from all this research is that having endless choices won’t help our creativity flow; it actually kills creativity. Struggling to get through a constraint, or an external obstacle of any kind, makes us think and write more creatively. Human creativity has always worked like this, which is how we got from being cavemen to living in posh houses with central heating.

So what is the problem you are trying to solve with your writing? What is your mission? Your drive? What ignites your inner engine?

Find it and write, you fool!

WWBL Author