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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