Creative freedom is overrated

or how I learned to stop worrying and love the deadline.

More stories from Winter Heffernan

April 3, 2023

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There is nothing more daunting than a blank sheet of printer paper. It’s similar to the feeling of looking at Easter dinner and knowing there will be left-overs for days on end (and none of your family will be generous enough to take some home).

I remember taking large reams of paper on road trips, hoping to fill them in entirely with magic worlds, ancient artifacts and appealing characters. 

I never got too far. This wasn’t for lack of imagination; I had plenty of ideas. It was putting them on paper that never worked.

This was because I did not have a framework around what I would write or draw. I did not know where to start, and I was often paralyzed by the myriad of things I could create.

Often the most productive way to create something, is to create it within limits. Absolute creative freedom will kill your projects before they even manifest as a single blot of ink. 

Lets say, for example, we are supposed to write a short story. That’s it, our only requirement. Where do you begin? I personally would start by giving my eyes snow-blindness through staring at a white LED screen at 2 a.m. 

The common phrase for this is analysis paralysis. In an attempt to write something compelling and enjoyable, one can drown in the possibilities of plot, character and message.

Now, let’s make some requirements for our hypothetical story. The story has to be about a lizard. The story must take place in Eau Claire. The story must have a battle scene. 

With these limitations in place, it can be much easier to create a story. You have a starting idea that can be refined with time. Working within restrictions makes it much easier to form your own ideas by playing with the requirements given and playing with them.

A popular example of flourishing in restrictions is the legendary six word story often attributed to Hemmingway, FOR SALE. BABY SHOES. NEVER WORN.

On the other hand, some restrictions can be harmful to the creative process as well. Too many restrictions can be stifling or stressful for someone trying to create.

Deadlines are needed so things get done on time and are finished responsibly. Artificial deadlines can be also created to increase motivation and productivity, for example The Pomodoro Technique. However, deadlines can be used irresponsibly.

Deadlines when abused can cause burnout, stress and poor planning. An example of this can be seen in large video game studios, this is colloquially known as crunch. This leads to poor mental health and often a bad product.

In contrast, Supergiant Games is a studio that has created compelling and beautiful games while avoiding crunch and requiring vacation time.

Additionally, restrictions are only beneficial if they are intended to help. Some restrictions can be put in place to avoid challenging the status-quo or exploring sensitive topics, for example, censorship. When it comes to restrictions, intent matters.

In conclusion, restrictions are vital to the creative process. They can inspire and motivate people to start making things. However, when making restrictions it is important to be responsible and critical. Heffernan can be reached at [email protected].