There is something alluring and romantic about the idea of coloring outside lines.
I can’t name a single “creative person” who doesn’t want to color outside the proverbial lines. Can you?
It’s what we live to do.
It captures and communicates our deeply held values for free expression.
Why, then, can coloring outside the lines be so elusive and challenging?
If you plan to “color outside the lines” in your creative work, career or life, there is one core ingredient that MUST be present.
Without it, it is absolutely impossible for you to ever color outside anything.
Know what it is?
Without lines, there is no outside to color.
This is why I believe your and my creativity thrives in restraint.
And why I believe tension is a necessary ingredient in our creative processes, products and culture.
It was the lines of segregation outside which Martin Luther King, Jr. colored.
It was the lines of the European literary tradition outside which Walt Whitman colored.
It is the lines of traditional philanthropy outside which Jacqueline Novogratz colors.
When we start with a blank canvas and complete freedom, we have nothing of real consequence or significance injecting conflict and tension into our work.
Structure restrains freedom. Which means structure and freedom exist in a perpetual state of tension.
Therefore, our creativity thrives (or dies) on our ability to find freedom within structure.
Take free verse poetry. Technically, there are no rules. But most poets’ attempts to write free verse poetry suck.
Poetry has thrived on the tensions created by poets propagating new traditions and philosophies. That’s why there are so many “schools” and generations of poetry. Which means the history of poetry is a lineage of poets creating rules so they (or others) could break them. Or lines they (or others) could cross.
You could say the same of painters, photographers, musicians, architects, chefs, dancers, filmmakers, sculptors or any other Creative you can imagine. You can even say this about entrepreneurs and executives.
We need lines so we (or someone) can color outside them.
Just like we need boxes so we (or someone) can think outside them.
So next time you find yourself feeling creatively blocked or burnt out, don’t start with a blank page, canvas or screen.
Start with something that restrains you. Then push against that in your work until you find freedom.
Don’t believe me? Try telling a child they can’t have something they want. Then watch how unbelievably creative they get in an onslaught of attempts to change your answer.
And next time someone criticizes you or your work, remember that all they’re really doing is coloring outside the lines you represent to them.
How do you use restraint and structure in your work to propel your creativity?
Keitharsis explores creativity, roots and the portfolio life. It is written for writers and artists from all walks of life. New essays are published each Tuesday and Thursday. A creative exercise is published each Wednesday.