Several years ago, I joined a small group visiting the set of Saturday Night Live after its Friday-night rehearsal. During the visit, executive producer Lorne Michaels discussed SNL’s creative process–emphasizing that the show’s extraordinarily tight schedule actually propels creativity.
Each week, SNL’s writers and performers trudge toward Saturday’s live broadcast and the looming possibility of “imminent failure,” said Michaels, and this pressure-cooker pace ignites creative energy.
“It is axiomatic to me that there’s no creativity without boundaries,” he said.
Musician and composer Quincy Jones would agree, having received a similar dictum early in his career. His composition teacher Nadia Boulanger said to him, “The more boundaries you set, the more freedom you have.”
“I didn’t want to hear that,” Jones told Smithsonian magazine many years later, “but she was right.”
To free and lift creative potential, try imposing these five limitations on yourself:
Depend on computers for every answer and you’ll often wind up with far too many answers. That’s the opinion of legendary industrial designer Irving Harper, who created the original Herman Miller logo and the first sunburst clocks.
Harper does own an Apple computer, but it’s typically tucked away in his studio closet.
“With a computer, there are too many choices,” he told The New York Times, “and I always like working within limits. If you look at Mozart, who had this strict classical framework–an allegro, an andante, a scherzo, and a finale–you see that within that formula he got results he might never haven gotten if he had all the options in the world.”
In addition to determining what you want to do for a particular project, also decide the tropes and bromides to avoid at all costs.
Before filming Contagion, director Steven Soderbergh sat down and decided which disaster-movie clichés he wanted to sidestep.
“We had a list we refused to do,” he explained to New York Magazine. “Can’t show the president. No helicopter shots. Can’t go somewhere and show people suffering where our characters haven’t been. Those restrictions made us think laterally, which was good.”
Ready resources can be a blessing, but too many can overwhelm or overburden.
Because of personal beliefs, Stella McCartney doesn’t use fur or leather in her clothing lines. But she enthusiastically embraces these limitations, telling interviewer Charlie Rose, “I like it when I have design restraints.”
McCartney knows less can frequently be more when it comes to creative solutions. Innovative traffic engineer Henry Barnes often said he could solve just about any traffic problem “with yellow paint and common sense.”
Establish exact times to move into action and stick with the schedule. Isaac Asimov, who wrote hundreds of books, articles, and essays, maintained a rigid 8-hours-a-day, four-days-a-week writing agenda.
And writer Ann Patchett advises writers to pick a specific amount of time to sit at a desk every day. “During that time, you don’t have to write, but you must stay at your desk without distractions–no phone, no Internet, no books,” she says in her The Getaway Car essay. “Sooner or later you will write because you will no longer be able to stand not writing…”
With the right mind-set, deadlines become lifelines for creativity. Just ask singer and songwriter Jack White.
“Deadlines and things make you creative,” White said in the Under Great White Northern Lights documentary film.
“But opportunity and telling yourself you have all the time in the world, you have all the money in the world, you have all the colors in the palette you want, anything you want–that just kills creativity.”