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  • Writer's pictureTucker Bryant

The freedom in constraints

I hate writing to a structure (ghazal, sestina, etc) but it actually both makes it easier when you have less to decide between, and ends up guiding you in helpful ways when you return to the free verse

This week hasn’t felt very productive for me from a writing perspective.

It’s not that I haven’t been writing – it’s that what I’ve been writing hasn’t quite been landing the way I’ve wanted it to.

Actually honestly, it’s that… and that I haven’t been writing much.

Because when I sit down to write, I stop myself every time I put pen to paper and the first thing that comes out doesn’t sound right. Ugh. For someone who’s all in on advocating for Imperfectionism, I sure do find myself outrunning that perfectionist instinct fairly often.

In my experience, perfectionism – which kills creativity, innovation, and meaningful change of even the smallest kinda – usually stems from some ego-driven fear. We start to feel like every piece of work we produce is by default a perfect, 1-to-1 reflection of ourselves, and so the thought of producing something that doesn’t perfectly align to our creative tastes feels scary, bad, and discouraging.

For me, then, the question in these moments of perfectionist blocking becomes: how can we start to put some distance between my ego and my work in order to move forward?

Or, another way of phrasing this challenge might be “how can I start taking my work less personally?”

As I’ve written about a little bit on here, introducing constraints can do wonders to help us distance ourselves and our self-judgements from the work we’re sharing with the world. When we introduce a constraint, it’s easier for us to tell ourselves that our work isn’t a perfect reflection of who we are or what we’re worth, because we know that the constraints lead us to make decisions that aren’t purely our own (or decisions we would make when given free reign over our work).

Quick case in point: at the beginning of a keynote, if I were to ask how many of the leaders and executives in the room are capable of writing a good poem, I’d be lucky to see two hands sheepishly raise among the 50-500 seats that are filled.

But if I were to then ask how many people in that same room are capable of writing a good haiku, now we’d get a lot more hands in the air.

Listen – when I sit down to write, I want to be able to tap into some ineffable genius that plucks the best of my ideas out of my head and phrases them in the best way imaginable without having to rely on a structure. The last thing I want in those moments is to force myself to write a sestina, ghazal, or sonnet.

But I know for sure that a finished poem I didn’t think I wanted to write is worth a lot more to me than the unwritten poem of my dreams.

(Still working on the pithy one-liner to describe that one).

The funny thing is that often, surrendering to constraints in our work can and liberating our expectations and egos can paradoxically be freeing; constraints afford us the psychological freedom to produce with less judgment and like our ideas more than we might have in a wholly unstructured format.

So the next time you find that you’re stopping yourself from moving forward on a project or idea and your ego is tricking you into thinking that that you have to perfect your babysteps to even “deserve” to progress, consider introducing a constraint. It doesn't really matter what the constraint is; could be time, stylistic, process-related or output-focused.

The goal is just to get the pen moving.

And to do that again.

And again.

And one day, you’ve made a thing.

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