Think of the creative process. Maybe a gigantic blank canvas comes to mind. Maybe a blank piece of writing paper. Or an empty stage.

The artist without limits.

The proverbial blank canvas is rarely a reality in the creative process. Think of the architect dealing with the many requirements of a project. Or the screenwriter adapting a novel. Think of the graphic designer developing a logo for a client’s business. Each act of creativity is performed within the framework of limitations.

But in a strangely paradoxical way, the proverbial blank canvas may not be the best place to start in a creative process, anyway. Creativity is often enhanced by limitations.

One extreme example is the poetic form of haiku. Writing haiku in its purest form means adhering to a specific syllabic structure as well as including a seasonal reference drawn from a defined list of words.

One might think these limitations would completely handcuff the imagination.

Quiet the contrary.

The demands of haiku serve to actually ignite creativity.

Here’s a much simpler example.

I give you a blank piece of paper and tell you to start writing a story. If you’re like most people, you’ll take a while to think things over and may or may not come up with an idea to write about. The blank page screams, “Writer’s Block!”

Instead, how about I give you the same blank piece of paper, but this time, I tell you that the word “penguin” must appear in the first sentence. The word triggers the imagination by associations one may have with the word. By giving a second word, “fly,” it serves to further ignite the imagination to create that first sentence and start to write.

Let’s call the ability to produce original works within the bounds of these “limitations,” Creative Agility. Developing the ability to come up with creative ideas within the bounds of restrictions requires a form of mental agility or nimbleness.

So, when the flow of creative ideas dries up to a trickle, ignite the imagination by throwing in some sort of limitation. Pick a random word. Splash on a random colour. Squiggle a random line. Then, use that randomness to ignite your creativity.

In designing the writing game COW (Creative Online Writing) (see alieogames.com), a critical element to the creative experience is the introduction of the Bonus Words. While a writer composes their story from a prompt, they are suddenly given a bonus word (it could even be “penguin”). They are challenged to incorporate this bonus word into their narrative. Although this may, at first, seem like a restriction, players of the game have actually described the bonus words as “sparking my imagination.”

The bonus words provided throughout the game enable the writer to develop their creative agility. This nimbleness of the imagination is a key element to the primary goal of COW– to develop writing fluency.