When I was a high school sophomore, the English teacher said to our class, “Creativity is working within the constraints.” The concept was new to my 15-year-old brain. Wasn’t a constraint something bad, something that held you back? Well, no, that was more like a restraint. My ancient paperback dictionary (published that same year) defines constraint as, among other things, “unnaturalness of manner produced by repression of one’s natural feelings.” The English teacher was trying to repress us!
Now that I’m older and wiser (well, older, anyway), I appreciate what Mr. Mitsui meant to convey. Creativity is problem-solving and fiction writing is loaded with problems! It’s common wisdom that you can fix a bad page but not a blank page. Enter the first problem: when you’re writing, you have to make that first (second, third, fourth) brave attempt to get your ideas down on paper, then (second problem) step back and (third problem) see what’s there. Mysteries abound and questions arise. How does the kid working at the espresso cart fit in with the cadre of immortals from Mount Olympus? A heroine in the year 1893 dresses as man and, on a dare, sneaks into a performance of Little Egypt’s shocking “belly dance”- -a lively idea, but what happens for the next 275 pages?
Surprisingly, these questions have a way of working themselves out. Often the answers lurk in what’s already been written. I’m talking about clues. The trick is, stepping back and freeing your mind to see what’s there. The key to writing yourself out of a corner is to make the resolution plausible in the world you’ve created (fourth problem). We all hate mystery novels with solutions that have no grounding in the rest of the story; cheating your way out of a writing problem delivers the same result.
Some writing constraints aren’t self-created. Enter the use of “prompts” (themes, visual art, first lines, etc.) that ask for a written response. Prompts introduce the challenging fun of “what can I make out of this?” You can find prompts in creative writing classes, contests and themed literary anthologies. THEMA Literary Magazine http://www.themaliterarysociety.com/ is calling for stories and poems inspired by “The Neat Lady and the Colonel’s Overalls” for their November 1, 2015 submission deadline. Cowboypoetry.com is soliciting poems in response to Gary Morton’s painting “Crash of Thunder” through July 22, 2015 http://www.cowboypoetry.com/artspur.htm. I haven’t responded to a “first line” prompt for a while, but back in 2007 I entered a contest at the (now-defunct) From the Asylum website. The first line of a poem had to begin with “My sweetheart wears a _________.” Inspiration spurred me to this creation:
My sweetheart wears a Stetson
every night when he goes to bed.
To hold the shape of his six-inch brim
he stacks four pillows ‘neath his head.
It’s not his hat that ails me,
it’s the boots and spurs besides.
It ruins my sleep when he shouts “giddyup”
And plants rowels in my sides.
It’s insomnia in Cowboy Dreamland,
where they don’t tolerate counting sheep.
My sweetheart, he lopes beside me
and saddles me up in his sleep.
When he yodels out before dawning
I’m lathered from that wild ride.
I should have heeded my mother’s advice:
“Don’t be a cowboy’s bride!”
-S.D. Matley © 2007
Much to my surprise, I won the contest! It probably helped that the editor was from Texas.
And now, if you are so inclined, go forth and have your own creative romp with prompts and working within the constraints!
**The poem “Night Range” comes with a caveat: it is entirely a work of fiction and in no way depicts the actions or sleepwear of my husband, who is also my First Reader and requested this caveat. He does, however, own a Stetson.
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