Creative Constraints: rewriting your limitations with your creative journal.

We can’t always create despite our limitations. Sometimes we have to create with them.

In some stories, we don’t climb the mountain, defeat what’s ‘holding us back,’ and emerge victorious.

Some constraints are not to be defeated. They may be precious: lovely, down-haired creatures who wake us feverish and sniffling in the night. Some are simply part of us: limitation and gift bundled wired right into our neural pathways. And then there are those human limits that are, simply, non-negotiable.

Maybe the question is not how to escape these constraints. Or even how we could have created if only…

Sometimes the question is simply, how to create with these (human) conditions?


If you’ve ever felt like your creative endeavors were drifting beyond your grasp and that limitations loomed too large in your life, then this is for you. (And it’s also for me--because it’s full of everything I have to remember as well).

This is the part where I tell you to pick up your pen.

I’ve written before on how I’m rewriting my life with my journal with my favorite creative journaling technique that I try to use most days.

But retelling the story of my constraints is another way I’ve found to be the author of my life. It’s something worth doing at least once a year. Or whenever you just feel like there’s more going against you than there is going for you.

Like many kinds of journaling, it’s simple and it’s not. You start with what you think you know and then you surprise yourself.

Ready to spill a little ink?

First, rewrite the ‘do it anyway’ mentality.

I don’t know what culture(s) or family you grew up in, but I’m not used to cutting myself slack for the circumstances of my life. Maybe you grew up with coaches that pushed you to put in 110% effort? An entire academic (and economic) system that told you anything is in your reach if only you work harder? (Harder than anyone else...Harder than humanly possible...Harder.)

I do know that sometimes we bump up against very real limitations--to our time, energy, health, and to our ability to create. Some obstacles can’t be moved, pushed aside or wished away.

And here’s the thing:

Focusing on ‘doing it anyway’ robs us of perspective. We end up placing all our attention on constraints and why we want to overcome them. We wind up choosing the wrong battles, trying to carry the world on our shoulders or push the wrong boulder up the hill. We fail to see possibilities and miss opportunities.

I fall into this trap all the time. Do it anyway, says that voice inside my head. And if I’m smack in the middle of some non-negotiable family obligations? I may find myself thinking I should be able to get this done...anyway.

I only have to be more creative with my time. I just have to try harder.

Or I just have to become someone who can get up and hold a coughing child for two hours in the night and then still wake up at five AM and pound out a cool 1200 words on the keyboard before it’s time to wipe noses and treat the whole family for pink eye.

The problem is this: there’s no cheating time. And you can borrow from the Sandman, but eventually, you will have to pay your dues by getting some sleep--or become a glassy-eyed zombie.

And if you’ve ever had the privilege of camping out on towels on your floor with your toddlers, and various ‘puke bowls’ strewn around the room in hopes of containing the chaos you can’t ultimately control? Then you know that sometimes, getting in a day’s work is just not possible.

When you accept that some constraints just won’t budge, you can focus on something else. Something, kinder to yourself, more productive and much more...creative. You can focus on creating with your constraints. With the materials you have.

It might seem impossible, but so many things do at first--especially when you’re focusing all your attention on the obstacles: the things you can’t do, can’t overcome.

The best way to start is with your pen, your paper—and the right question…

What if we create with our constraints...because of them even?

Let me be the first to admit it. Accepting (embracing?) your constraints is hard. It’s so easy to just want to change our realities or imagine that we could finally do our best creative work if only things were different. To write ourselves a comic book life where we wipe noses, visit bedsides, write poetry and create businesses in a single bound. But before we put on our capes and tights…

There are often creative treasures hidden in those realities we can’t change. And we can only find them if we’re looking if we dare to ask ourselves the right questions.

Here’s one recent and personal example. (Yours may overlap, look completely different--or, like the rest of us, you may have many. That’s ok--we’ll talk about that next).

I’ve already written about the way my children (who are my most precious constraints that almost never happened) and how they got me started drawing again. And while I’m often up against some intense time-limitations in my professional and creative life, I’ve come to realize that my family has pushed me to do much more than just draw. I have my journaling habits to thank for this new understanding and perspective.

But that’s my story--or part of it. It’s just one way of illustrating our shared human condition that is riddled with limitations. And we were talking about rewriting your story.

So you’re going to have to think of your own examples. When you start reflecting on your own constraints, bringing them into the light, examining them and finally asking the right questions, you’ll start seeing them differently. And you might think differently about yourself as a creative person, what you can strive for, what you might accomplish, and what is cause for celebration.

How will you rewrite the story of your creative constraints?

You won’t know until you start. But I know this: every time I sit down to rewrite my constraints, frustrations, and limitations I learn something new and unexpected.

Part of the process is just opening your mind, asking the question and letting your thoughts meet the paper.

And if you get stuck...

What if you get into your constraints and you realize you can’t see your way around them? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Make sure you have enough (Sleep? Rest? Chocolate?) This is a great journaling practice, but when I find I can’t get perspective on a situation? 90% of the time it’s due to exhaustion, pure and simple. Rest, relax and return.

  • Write for a while and then space out: bake something, draw something, drive, wander in the woods. Sometimes I cook with my journal nearby...I get a lot of ideas when my body is busy but my mind is free.

  • Look to others for inspiration. I talk to a lot of people who are telling their stories, so I’m constantly hit by the realization that our stories have more in common than we think. And that so many of us are sitting on our stories alone. At the bottom of this post, you’ll see a list of articles for more inspiration on creating with constraints. And if you have your own story to share? Feel free to add it in the comments.

Ready to put pen to paper?

I’d love to hear about it if you decide to reconsider or rewrite your constraints. Let me know how it goes, or send me a link to any writing (or art) this inspires. And if you’ve got examples of creatives who stay productive in spite of or because of their limitations, please add your thoughts to the comments.

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Interested in starting a creative journaling habit and maybe rewriting a little of your life? Sign up for a short, self-paged challenge.

Further reading and inspiration:

Need a little reversed brainwashing to tell yourself that maybe it’s worth trying, maybe it’s worth getting started, maybe you’ll find your unique style…maybe you can create with your limitations? Read on!

Creativity, attention and working memory.
Check out this post from Scientific American: Calvin and Hobbs, ADHD, and Creativity.  For those of you who have told me you struggle with low working memory (yes there are several of you!) Did you know that correlates with being MORE creative?) Maybe in this case you are creative with or because of your constraints.  

Writing for those with family obligations (!!)
Here’s a really fun reflection on how creepy author Shirley Jackson got much of her inspiration while doing housework, why she wrote short stories (because she could finish them in her limited time) and how a toaster once inspired a story...maybe you’ll find your next poem while vacuuming or walking.  Maybe short pieces are your mainstay. Maybe you need a pocket journal...just saying.

Writers who write despite their learning differences...or because of them.
First, there are those possibly dyslexic authors the best known like William Butler Yeats,  dysgraphic and possibly dyslexic Agatha Christie.

Then there’s a confirmed dyslexic author you may know and love, Fannie Flagg, author of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe.

Just in case you’re thinking these authors write in-spite of their dyslexia here’s Sally Gardner, children’s writer and Carnegie Medal Winner of Maggot Moon on her experience growing up dyslexic and then becoming a writer.

“Dyslexia is not a disability – it's a gift. It means that I and many other dyslexic thinkers can portray the world through images because we think in images. I can build worlds, freeze the frame, walk around and touch. I can read people's faces, drawings, buildings, landscapes and all things in the visual world more quickly than many of my non-dyslexic friends. I paint with words; they are my colours.”

Artists with visual and perception problems.

For an interesting look why some kind of vision problems may make you more likely to become an artist...or how some artists developed their personal style with ‘a-typical’ vision and perception, check out this article in Scientific American.  Once again--because of constraints, with constraints and in a style all their own…

Austin Kleon and his continuing search for stories of creatives “whose physical ‘shortcomings’ have led to their signature work.”

Musicians, visual artists, writers...with physical limitations. I love that this piece is not so much an answer as the start of a discussion. The act of asking a new question.