Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Obstructions and Freedoms - Elen Caldecott

I have two very different takes on the creative process to share today: obstruction and freedom. They may seem like opposites, but I think they can both benefit creative people.

Obstructions are the limits that other people set on what we can do. I first came across this idea a good few years ago when I watched Lars von Trier's The Five Obstructions in which von Trier challenged his friend and mentor, Jorgen Leth to remake the same short film five times, each time with an arbitrarily imposed obstruction. Lars chose the obstructions, naturally, and they ranged from technical (one short could only be made up of sections that were 12 frames long) to the emotional (another short had to be filmed in the worst place in the world). It should have been a disaster, but Leth rose to the challenge and, for the most part, the short films he produces are sublime. In each case, it is the obstructions that inspire Leth to try harder, to think bigger, to be bold.

Freedoms, on the other hand, are what you have when no-one is looking over your shoulder. When an idea comes, characters take shape, words spring and there are no deadlines and contracts and editors. Freedom is what you have when writing is done simply for pleasure. It is often the thing that self-publishers will guard jealously.

This week I attended a meeting for a writing project that comes laden with obstructions - it is for the educational market. There will be no violence, no dangerous activities, no pigs, no swearing. There will be a phonics list. I might have felt the weight of a depressing constraint. But I didn't. Instead, I felt challenged - how do you make a story exciting if it also has to be safe? How can I keep readers asking for 'just one more chapter' if it all has to be written in phoneme-decodable language?

Actually, I found myself bristling with ideas. By setting up obstructions, the publishers are forcing me to think harder, to be ingenious.

Next week, I'm attending a writer's retreat. That will be all freedom (even the freedom to lie around in bed eating biscuits all day, if I want). I won't be doing any contracted writing. I hope that it will be invigorating and luxurious. It is just this kind of freedom that keeps writing fresh for me.

And just to illustrate how good things can be with a bit of obstruction, here's Jorgen Leth's 'cartoon perfect human':



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9 comments:

Stroppy Author said...

This is so familiar, Elen - thank you for saying it, and analysing it so well. I do a lot of 'restricted' writing, and it's so true that the boundaries make you work harder within the walled-off space. I'm much more willing to get down to work when there is less freedom! Let's see how we all do next week.... Mustn't forget to take biscuits!

Crowe said...

No pigs?!!!

Elen C said...

Crowe - yup. No pet dogs either. Global cultural differences mean that pigs, cows and pets may not have the meaning that the writer original intended when sold internationally.

adele said...

This is all quite true! It is really liberating to have imposed limits sometimes. For instance, if you KNOW you're writing a sonnet, that's the form you've got and it somehow stretches your creativity rather than shrinking it.
Have fun at the SAS retreat, all who are going.

Emma Barnes said...

Your post reminds me of the quote "Art thrives on constraints and dies on freedom" which Fay, the heroine of Carol Shields' novel "the Republic of Love", has pinned up above her desk. It's Leonardo da Vinci originally I think.

Always thought it was a great quote. (And a great novel too!)

Andrew Strong said...

Absolutely agree. Too much choice can be crippling; limitation squeezes the imagination into shape.

Liz Kessler said...

I love this. I think sometimes I can feel I have too many restrictions and I struggle against it. But actually, they are part of the dynamic energy of the creative process. Thanks for reminding me! But yes, I'd definitely love to have a bit more of the 'free' kind of writing time too. Lots to think about. Interesting and thought-provoking post!

Sue said...

In the advertising business, the creatives often talk of "the freedom of a tight brief" which is rather like the Carol Shields quote. Or maybe they have just bought their knickers a size too small and I'm over-analysing things!

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