Creativity and Constraint

At yesterday’s Creative Performance Exchange meeting, we held an “unconference” session.  People nominated to present twenty minute “mini-sessions” on a range of topics at one of three tables, and the rest of us chose to sit in on whichever topic was of interest.  We cycled through the mini-sessions three times, so there were nine in total.  Great fun, and a great way to spark new ideas and innovation.

One of the sessions I attended was led by Don Miller, of the Melbourne Centre for Ideas. Don briefly spoke about the comparison between western ideas of freedom, and how “total” freedom can actually limit creativity. (My paraphrase.) The point is – when we are given some form of constraint, we can often become more creative.  Some creative fields come with built-in constraints.   For example, an architect will usually be constrained by the available land area, and by design restrictions imposed by materials, technology, planning regulations, etc.  When we start to test imposed limits, we can also frequently break new creative ground.

To my mind, a classic case of this is the design of the Sydney Opera House.  When Jørn Utzon first drafted his designs for the famous “sails”, it was said that it would be impossible to build with the concrete technology available at the time. The design was changed during the development process, yet it is unlikely that the current globally-recognised design would have ever been built if the construction limitations had not been pushed as they were.

Don led us in a brief exercise to illustrate creativity under constraint. We were asked to spend 10 minutes writing – on whatever topic we chose – with the constraint that every word must include the letter ‘e’.  We were also asked to write at least six lines of text. 

Given that ‘e’ is the most common letter in the English language, this is not as severe a constraint as restricting other letters, yet still enough of a constraint to encourage some creativity! For one thing, it completely rules out the conjunctions ‘and’ and ‘but’, forcing some creative use of punctuation to replace them.  (Try it for yourself.)

At the end of the session , we all read out our pieces.  The seven or so of us at the table were all able to complete the task, with a very varied set of results.  One was a “meta-text” – a piece about the task itself.  For reference, here’s my piece:

Wearily, Eve went westerly.  She previously called her boyfriend, when her vehicle expired. He delayed. She waited; she waited. Darkness fell. Remoteness, loneliness grew. She called repeatedly – response lacked. Heavily, she trudged ahead, seeking help.

Lightness somewhere, beyond the trees. Her prayers went heavenward; her feet westward.

Where’s Edward?

This exercise rather put me in mind of the old piece by Stanislaw Lem, in which a poetry-writing machine is challenged:

“Have it compose a poem – a poem about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter ‘s’!”

Then, “a melodious voice filled the hall with the following:”

Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed.
Silently scheming,
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide.

… And speaking of constraints, this was originally written in Polish, and translated into English by Michael Kandel.


  1. Thanks, Steve. Hope someone finds your book! Happy for anyone else that was there to post their piece here.

    The name for this type of constrained writing is apparently “lipogram” (“missing letter”). There have been a number of works written using this principle. One of the earliest was the 1939 novel “Gadsby”, by Ernest Vincent Wright, written with no letter ‘e’.

    Another notable lipogrammatic work is “La disparition” (“The disappearance”), by Georges Perec. Both the original French, and the English translation (“A void”) by Gilbert Adair, omit the letter ‘e’. Read about it on Wikipedia here:

    Interesting to note that the Wikipedia author has also managed to write the Plot Summary for “A void” (140 words) without using ‘e’!

    Indeed, the challenge is to look for relevant constraints to encourage creativity. A number of De Bono’s approaches work by applying constraints, such as the “six thinking hats”, and random word lists.

    – Keith

  2. Hi Keith – Thanks for posting this. I wish I could add my piece, but I left my book in the room after the session!

    It was excellent though – I highly recommend putting some constraints on yourself when next faced with a problem/deadline etc etc. Strategy plan in an hour? Business plan without the use of the term “ROI” or something to that effect.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.