Limitations

Art is an unbounded, beautiful wilderness, stretching as far as the eye can see. Art runs deep and wide, brushed with the winds of imagination, filled with everything your mind can imagine. The possibilities reach beyond the horizon, and the whole world of beauty and exploration is your dance floor. All this is true. The world (and all that's beyond it) is a plentiful and abundant resource for your creativity. But you should limit yourself.

"What do you mean I should limit myself? I have so much to explore, and I've got to see everything the world has to offer. How can I put limitations on myself if I can choose from so many options?" I, too, have felt like any attempt at regulating or limiting my art was the ponzi scheme to take away my creative freedom. But put down your defenses for a moment and consider with me how limitations can free your art.

I'm not sure about you, but when I look at a huge variety of options (things like restaurant menus or Netflix), I go into immediate paralysis. This might be a personality issue (it is). But I think anybody, faced with the real scope of creative possibility, would fail to create at all, and instead curl up on the ground, rocking back and forth, wondering where to start.

Anything you have created has had limitations, whether you set them on purpose or not. Creating at all is, at a definitional level, making limitations: you have put borders around what this song is and what it is not. It does not contain every note and lyric possible; it is only one song, and is thus limited.

"Okay, that's a total cop-out. You're getting all philosophical and whatever on me. I'm talking about how you shouldn't limit your creativity on purpose."

Let me ask this question: if your art is limited whether you want it to be or not, why shouldn't you limit yourself with purpose?

No matter what you do, you're going to be limited by something. Your ability, your knowledge, the breadth of your medium. Limitations in themselves are not stifling. The right kind of limitations are the kind of freedom your art needs, because without them you'll end up like me with a restaurant menu, struggling to find "the right thing" to create (or which entree will be the best for the price).

What I like to do is, for a larger project, choose an overarching limitation, and for smaller pieces, smaller and often playful limitations. My last major artistic work was a 6-song EP with my band. The overarching limitation (the theme) was my growing up. Anything within that general theme could be created for the EP. From there, with each song, I gave myself a narrower limitation for the lyrical subject--perhaps how I used to play in the backyard. This calls back to mind all the feelings that came with that: how the few trees lining our fence felt like a great forest, how our four-layer-high brick huts we built felt like a medieval village, the whole mystical imaginative feeling in losing yourself in your own world. This lyrical limitation then brought about a musical idea: a sort of wide-eyed, magical feel with moments of serenity and energy.

See what happened? No artistic paralysis. No painful wishing I could figure out what kind of song to write. Limitations are what gave me the freedom to write that song, whether I realized it at the time or not. I believe that the better you are at intentionally limiting your art, the more focused your art will become.

As creators, we are not tasked with covering, single-handed, everything in and beyond the universe in the same way that humans are not tasked with understanding the full person of God. This is an impossible idea, but instead of despair, what we do is we create what we can: small pieces of beauty that speak beyond the words or paints or vibrations they are, whispering about the great truths they reveal.

Where have you seen the right and the wrong kinds of limitations? What unexpected beauty have you seen from limiting yourself?