The enemy of art is the absence of limitations. – Orson Welles
We don’t like to dwell too often on the subject of our own limits, those areas we describe as opposite to our strengths. When we ponder our limitations – as people, as artists – we tend towards negative meanings of the word: our shortcomings and defects, our failures to achieve, our failures of personality and greatness.
When we say that we’re at the limits of our patience or our endurance, we know we’re at the outer edges of ourselves, stretched thin and nearing some other state. We are at capacity; we are close to the very fullest of a virtue that we can conceive for ourselves.
We are also describing new territory into which we do not usually venture. If I tell you that I know my limitations as a writer, for example, I might say that I have strengths in an expository or a lyrical style, but that I’m terrible at relaxing into a stream-of-consciousness narrative. This statement might come from experience or respect for what I believe I can and cannot achieve in my writing. Or perhaps I’m being honest about where I’m artistically comfortable. It might also be an excuse not to foray into a creative challenge.
We’re always attracted to the edges of what we are, out by the edges where it’s a little raw and nervy. – E. L. Doctorow
Writers are often fascinated by borders, thresholds, the margins and edges of things. It’s good territory for testing oneself; many poetry and other writing prompts challenge us to step out of what’s comfortable, towards the very edges of what we think we can do, or be. It’s also a place of power where we can probe and interrogate our faith, our character and all our most dearly held ideas.
Our thresholds are also demarcations, where we draw the identifying lines of ourselves saying in effect This is Me, and Beyond This is Something Else. When we write our own personal myths or borrow mythic structures, we choose to contain ourselves in these story forms because we feel they are meaningful.
We often feel the constraints of time, but consider how they bind us to act in meaningful ways – for example, when we make relationships of depth, real intimacy grows from the time-bound experience of human nature. This limitation is very much like the making of a sonnet – that form that forces a compression and containment of language and experience to fourteen short lines, but what lines they are! Great creative beauty gets born under this pressure.
The drive to write a daily poetry prompt under the limitations and pressure inherent in a daily deadline create the blog entries you’re reading right now. If you’re writing a poem a day this April, you, too, are benefiting from artistic limitation and turning out lovely intensities of words that would not have come to you at a more leisurely pace. You and I are working under self-imposed limits, creating form and defining an artistic process as we go.
As writers, language is the tool of our craft and it is, at heart, how we compress the music of our sounds into meaning – it is also how we turn our meanings into meaningful sounds. Paradoxically, as poets (really, as humans) we use the inherent limitations of language, pattern and form to artfully bridge the silence and the distances between ourselves.
Writers sometimes give up what is most strange and wonderful about their writing – soften their roughest edges… – Mary Oliver
Write today’s poem in honor or exploration of limitation.
* Make a poetic map of your own walls – be sure to include where the windows, doorways and chimneys are.
* Write about a limitation that you suspect is self-imposed – is it useful to you, or an excuse?
* Write about your sense of self as spirit or mind contained by body. How can you tell where one ends and the other begins?
* What happens under the pressure of limitation when something vital cannot get out or be expressed?
* Where do your own perceived borders fail to contain you?
* Write the history of a specific physical space that has meaning for you – the three square feet of your writing desk, the interior of your car, the top of a horse, either end of your dog’s leash.
Extra credit: if you’ve never written in a particular poetic form because you thought you couldn’t, try it today. Alternately, if you consider yourself an expert in a particular form, intentionally burst its borders. Break its rules and make the breaking meaningful.