Constraints

It can be invigorating to live within walls and work within restrictions. Such things can, oddly, be liberating, as we are forced to learn to evade and elude.

The quote above, from the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami calls our attention to a counterintuitive fact about constraints and creative freedom. Often we seek to maximize freedom, believing that rules hold us back, preventing us from truly saying what we want to say. But the opposite is often true. Working without constraints can lead to meandering, muddy results in our work. Or worse, too much freedom can often lead to paralysis and an inability to get any work done at all. 

Some of the work I am most proud of, I did under extreme time pressure. The limit of time forced me to think through things clearly, not wanting to waste a minute, and to make direct and bold choices about what I was doing. There was no room to hedge or deliberate and I had to make choices based on what was possible within the limits. I recall these projects with a certain fondness for the intense level of focus each one brought.

Barriers compel us to react against them and manoeuvre beyond, just as a flow of water changes direction when blocked. They help us define ourselves and our work, refine our powers of deception, disarm the means of control.

Constraints, I have come to believe, are one of the primary means by which we define our voice. Personal style is, in a sense, nothing more than our own limitations coming into contact with a challenge. Our work is an artifact of this limited self coming into contact with and engaging with the boundaries of the creative game.

The constraints of the many strict poetic forms that exist offer vibrant challenges, and the resulting verse often has flavours that the poet himself never knew he was capable of.

Paradoxically, the boundaries are useful precisely because they give us something push up against. We are faced with a specific challenge of seeing how we can bend and break them. The rules are not sacred oracles to be revered, but like a good sparring partner, they can help us engage all of our creative faculties in our struggle against them. 

What I like about rules is that they forever stimulate the imagination

The rules, as the saying goes, are meant to be broken. That doesn’t mean we dispense with them. On the contrary, we would do well to embrace them, putting them in place precisely so that we can stretch them, along with our creative faculties, to their limits.


For readers who are not familiar with Abbas Kiarostami and his work, he was an Iranian filmmaker who had to work with many constraints in his films partly because of the strict censorship laws in his home country. Watching his films, you’re never aware of this though, and they provide a wonderful lesson in embracing constraints as a path to greater creative expression.

The quotes from above all came from Lessons with Kiarostami, edited by Paul Cronin. I highly recommend it as a source of inspiration, even if you aren’t a filmmaker or know Kiarostami’s work. It’s full of timeless wisdom on creativity and making your own path.