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The biggest obstacle to creativity? A lack of obstacles

I'm having trouble with a deadline. It's a big creative project, in a genre that's new to me, and I just can't write it. I have a couple of non-contiguous hours here and there to work on it, precious hours in a week of teaching and other work and then the mandatory anxiety-inflating hours pushing a toddler on a swing, and when my free hour comes up, I sit and stare at the notes on what must be done on the big project and, well, I sit there and stare at them. I may check out a couple of websites, to get my heart rate down. And then the hour is up, and the toddler is home screaming, and that's that.

So now I'm having the nightly exam-and-missed-flight dream, and pretty much ignoring the phone (sorry, Mom). I whine a great deal about the insufferable difficulty of my life and complain that it is impossible to be imaginative without the calm that comes from long stretches of time, and how does anyone expect an artist to function without mental and emotional space? And all those things we hear artists say in public talks about their process.

And yet we all know that the real world demands creative thinking to other people's specifications within tight deadlines. The only remaining television shows about artistic creation are all about this, especially Project Runway and Bravo!'s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. The latter show – which is entertaining and informative – annoys a lot of artists because, they say, it has little relation with the world of art they want to inhabit. Contestants in this U.S.-made show must complete a variety of projects invented by a panel of judges – making a piece of street art, designing a book cover, making art inspired by a news headline – and they must do it in a limited time. How limiting, say its jealous art-school critics, and how commercial: No serious art can come of such exercises; serious art must come from a complete vacuum of commercial pressures and external guidelines, and only from periods of deep reflection. This is nothing but a game.

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Yes, it is a game, and the results are so often interesting and actually good – at least as interesting as the uneventful looping videos that will get you a show in a Brooklyn gallery. It's rather obvious, but I'd like to remind all the purists that almost all the great canonical art that preceded the 19th century was commissioned for a purpose.

This is the thing about constraint: It can stimulate the imagination. I find the same thing when I teach creative writing. I force students to write weekly exercises in voices other than their own – that is, I give them an obstacle, not an inspiration. They are also forced to produce weekly chapters of a longer project. It's a lot of writing to deadlines, and sometimes it stresses them out. Frequently, the pieces that come in with the most apologies and prefaces – the ones their writers claim are hopelessly bad because they were written at the last minute and without any feeling of comfort in the role – turn out to be the most spellbinding. For some reason, the imposition of foreign elements turns out to be creatively liberating.

And lo and behold, a recent psychological study claims to prove this phenomenon, As reported in Wired magazine, researchers at the University of Amsterdam experimented with people given creative tasks with and without distractions and obstacles. The people given obstacles tended to be more imaginative in their answers. The researchers infer that constraints encourage a more associative, lateral, "holistic" thinking in a way that focus on a single message does not. The writer of the piece in Wired, Jonah Lehrer, applies this idea to poetry – as an explanation of why fixed forms of metre and rhyme and length still inspire flights of fancy and linguistic experimentation. "We break out of the box by stepping into shackles," he concludes.

He also quotes the French poet Paul Valéry, who admonished complainers like me, "A person is a poet if his imagination is stimulated by the difficulties inherent in his art." Which means I should be able to use my terrifying deadline as a kind of wake-up pill for my art. Perhaps a glass of wine will also help.

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