Constraints and creativity

Last week I wrote about setbacks, and interestingly (coincidently?) this week was a lesson in the importance of constraints. Constraints aren’t the same as setbacks. Setbacks are unexpected and are experienced as random events, whereas a constraint is inherent in the project itself. But both test our patience and resolve.

Our limits are seldom personal; if we’re working for, or with a group, what we experience as a limit is often a part of the system itself. And the beauty of limits, as I was just reminded, working with a group yesterday, is that your limit forces you to reach out for help, to share your struggles and make it a team, and not just a solo project. As I’ve pointed out before, it’s easy to become heroic and try to push past a constraint, forgetting that we can only go as far as the system itself can.

And without constraints, there is no creativity. The two dimensional canvas, the inflexibility of the sculptor’s wood, the non-negotiable deadline, the 140 character tweet – these limits produce impossible and creative results. And constraints are the key to innovation, as this post from last week shows.

And constraints create relationship. I attended a final project presentation as part of the graduation week at the Process Work Institute, and saw Hellene Gronda’s presentation about the nature of the edge that upholds identity. Having an edge or limit, she says, defines us but also limits us. And yet, precisely that limit creates a contact surface. We know ourselves only in opposition to something else. A limit, therefore, enables relationship, intimacy, love.

But to have limits, as I was reminded working with a group yesterday, is counter-intuitive. We want to muscle through, to push past, to take it as a sign of weakness. We need, as Hellene said, to be “edge activists,” to admit our limits and let the alchemy at the contact with the unknown  take over. Hellene closed with a quote from Derrida which I find appropriate here as well,

I have to lack a certain strength, I have to lack it enough, for something to happen. If I were stronger than the other, or stronger than what happens, nothing would happen. There has to be weakness, which is not perforce debility, imbecility, deficiency, malady or infirmity. […] This affirmation of weakness is unconditional; it is thus neither relativistic nor tolerant (from Derrida, J. & Ferraris, M. (2001). I Have a Taste for the Secret. Cambridge: United Kingdom, Polity Press)


8 Responses so far.


  1. robin sierra says:

    another timely post julie, i recently tried to ‘muscle through’ a physical issue and a relationship one and in both cases made things worse. i find it very difficult to stay at an edge and to ‘not’ act when something is uncomfortable and especially when deep old family patterns are activated. i somehow feel that action will alleviate the problem but often it just exacerbates it.

  2. Robert says:

    Thanks for the posts about setbacks and constrains. I think that sometimes (or maybe more often) creative process and it’s setbacks might be like long and painfull labour, what is so nicely showed in many creation myths.
    My partner during childbirth said after long 30+ hours: This is the end. I give up. Stop. I’wont do it. It was the time of weakness, exhausting, despair and help – and hopelesness. And than – soon after that with last effort she gave birth to our child !
    M. L. von Franz pointed in her work about crative myths that the creative process is often accompanied by anxiety, depression, loneliness, and fear of the unknown and has also 4 parts of alchemical opus – so the setbacs seems for me to have “nigredo” quality.
    I hope that it did not sound too instructive or exalted – just wanted to share some thoughts from yet another angle.

  3. robert says:

    Dear Robin,
    I think “the Creation Myths” is good about the creative process context.
    I also remember she (MLvF) wrote about herself that without darkness, despair, “nigredo” breakdown nothing new, fresh, and original never came out in her writings/lecturing.

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