What Houdini Can Teach You About Writing

I read a book about Harry Houdini when I was in grade school. I was mesmerized. Then I learned he died from getting punched in the stomach and I was in disbelief. The greatest escape artist of all time was done in by a punch to the gut and not by being locked in a milk can? Seriously? (To his credit, he wasn’t prepared for the blow and probably suffered from appendicitis.)

Turns out, the guy was on to something, though. Putting crazy limitations on yourself can make you a superstar.

Do Better Work

Putting constraints around yourself actually frees you to do better work.

Ever had to stick to a budget? When you can only buy tuna and ramen noodles, you can’t help but create a “better” version of the tuna casserole your mom used to make.

Without straitjackets, chains, locks, and water chambers, Houdini was just another magician trying to make a buck. With them, he was mesmerizing. 

The same is true of writing. Too often as writers we’re told to free our minds, find our muse, and let the words pour out. Do that in a room full of teenagers and you’ll have a mutiny on your hands. Trust me, I tried it. There’s no direction so, naturally, frustration ensues.

It’s the same bullshit reason people claim they have writer’s block. When you’re free to do whatever you want, when the possibilities are endless, there’s too much ground to cover. It’s too intimidating. Writer’s block is nothing more than a fear of having too much space to roam. The only way to break a horse is to rein it in.

It took me a long time, as a teacher, to realize that the more constraints I put around writing assignments, the better results I got from kids. I hesitated for many years to do it, because I mistook parameters as formulas. But I was wrong. Formulas are patterns. And patterns are boring.

Constraints aren’t formulas. They’re fences that let you roam without running wild. They don’t tell you how to write, they tell you where the boundaries are.

Creativity in Constraint

Dr. Seuss wrote Green Eggs and Ham using 50 words. A haiku limits you to three lines, each consisting of seven, five, and seven syllables. Palindromes, Twitter, Vine, Six-word memoirs are all better because of the boundaries they impose. Hell, people have written entire novels without the letter ‘e’ just to see if they could do it.

All are variations of the same theme: creativity in constraint.

The longer I taught, the more I valued shorter work from students. Part of this is because I hated grading papers. But mostly it was because I found if kids couldn’t work within the restrictions and constraints I imposed upon them, they didn’t really know what they were talking about. It was the opposite of the “baffle them with bullshit” approach.

I used to assign a seven-question test after reading The Great Gatsby that limited answers to just six words. No more, no less. This freaked kids out. It forced them to formulate succinct ideas and get creative with how they conveyed their answer.

When I gave them free reign, they droned on and on. When I limited responses, they were brilliant.

You can do this in your own writing, too.

Find Your Straightjacket

If you’re a terrible writer, this probably won’t help you. But if you have the ability to put a couple of coherent sentences together, then you need to look for ways to straitjacket your words.

This really isn’t as hard as you might think. In fact, if you’ve ever written for someone else (i.e. copywriting), you’ve probably had to write to a certain length, topic, and style. While this is a little looser than saying you can only use bi-syllabic words, the idea is the same.

Write your “about me” page like a G.I. Joe profile card. Commit to reducing drafts by 50%. Write paragraphs of only three sentences each. Create an outline (and stick to it) for Christ’s sake!

Limits and constraints create promise. They force clarity and creativity. When you work within confines - self-imposed or otherwise - your let your audience know exactly what to expect.

From a marketing perspective, this is brilliant. People are already stingy with their time, so if you can deliver something creative within the bounds of expectation, you've hooked them. That's why Twitter and Vine are so successful. People know exactly what they’re getting and they’re looking for opportunities to be surprised.

There’s a reason Andy Dufresne dug his way out of Shawshank with a spoon and not by running away through a hole in the fence. Good writing isn’t about running free. It’s about getting creative within your contraints and breaking free.