Storystorm 2021 Day 25: Angela Burke Kunkel Explores the Power of Creative Limitations

by Angela Burke Kunkel


In “Steal Like an Artist: Ten Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative,” Austin Kleon writes:


“The best way to get over a creative block is simply to place

some constraints on yourself.

It seems contradictory, but when it comes to creative work,

limitations mean freedom.”


Or, for those author-illustrators or art buffs out there, consider this quote from artist David Hockney:


“Limitations are really good for you.

They are a stimulant.


If you were told to make a drawing of a tulip

using five lines,

or one using a hundred,

you’d be more inventive with the five.”


(While you’re at it, do a Google image search of Hockney’s own tulip drawings. You’ll see everything from paintings from the 70s and 80s to recent iPad sketches. Notice how they’re all different. And notice that this man is in his 80s and still imposing creative challenges on himself.)



My second published picture book, PENGUIN JOURNEY (Abrams Appleseed, October 2021), started as just this type of exercise. I tend to write really long first drafts, over a thousand words, in order to figure out what I need to say. And, in the midst of cutting (so much cutting), I wondered one day: what if I could write a complete picture book draft, arc and all, in under a hundred words? I happened to be thinking about penguins, and a little phrase popped into my head: “waddle waddle.” It was fun to say. But was it a story?


Well, at my desk one day, I wrote a draft repeating the phrase “waddle waddle” as a lone Emperor penguin arrives at their breeding ground, meets a mate, cares for their egg, and copes with the harsh conditions of Antarctic winter. All in . . . 69 words.


My agent and I decided to go on submission with the story, and Meredith Mundy at Abrams Appleseed wrote back with a request: Could I drop the repeated “waddle waddle,” keep the the original spare language and rewrite the concept . . . in rhyme? Revising and resubmitting to Meredith presented yet another set of creative challenges! I had a hard time letting go of “waddle waddle,” and I had never written in rhyme before. But, with Meredith’s careful editorial eye, the story’s new opening lines unfolded:


Packed snow.


Moon glow.


Windblown.


All alone.


They also made room for illustrator Catherine Odell’s beautiful mixed media art. But neither would exist without just sitting down one morning and playing with self-imposed limitations.


For today’s Storystorm, I challenge you to let those ideas flow, but with constraints. What are your tendencies, and how could you do the opposite? In other words, what creative limitations can you impose on yourself? In the idea-generating phase, this may mean stretching your brain in another direction. Do you usually start with character? How about generating an idea that starts with setting instead? Or are you a rhymer whose drafts begin with a couplet? Can you write those few lines sticking with prose (or vice versa)? Or open to a page in the dictionary, or the nearest book, and place a finger on a word at random— where can you go from there? What ideas come up for you?


Sometimes, just sometimes, the habit of letting ideas come without judgement is just a little too open. Or the ideas begin to repeat. If you find this is the case, build a cage of your own making—then see how to break out of it. You just might like what you come up with as you plot your escape.



Angela Burke Kunkel is the author of PENGUIN JOURNEY (Abrams Appleseed, October 2021) as well as DIGGING FOR WORDS: JOSÉ ALBERTO GUTIÉRREZ AND THE LIBRARY HE BUILT (Random House/Schwartz & Wade, 2020). After soaking up the sun in the Southwest for a number of years, she now lives in Vermont with her family, two dogs, a guinea pig and a rapidly-growing bearded dragon (really, it’s rather alarming). Angela works as a school librarian and is a former English Language Arts teacher. Visit her at , on Twitter and Instagram .



Angela is giving away a picture book critique to one Storystorm participant.


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