Limitations | Bad Habits, part 2

Note: this page is part of the Cliffjump! Manifesto. If you’ve arrived from an external link, and haven’t read the previous parts of the book, you might want to start at the beginning


photo credit: glennharper *

While working within your limitations as opposed to striving futilely to erase them, as discussed in the last chapter, can be a very powerful and empowering thing, this does not mean we should accept limitations in the work itself. Creativity is itself about transcending limitations, and we have to be ready to step up when the work challenges us to move beyond what we think we can do.

However, the danger is not just in accepting limitations; we also have to be very careful about imposing them, whether consciously or unconsciously, on ourselves or our work. One of the main ways we limit our work is with preconceptions – overthinking things beforehand, knowing too much about what we want the work to be, and closing ourselves off from the unexpected.

This limits the ability of the work to become what it ‘wants’ to be (more on this later!), as we dance through its creation alongside it, and it limits our ability to grow through the process, to learn something we might not have expected to learn… and I firmly believe that those are fundamental motivators for any really creative work; if you’re not looking to learn and grow, what are you doing?

Be like Houdini

On the other hand, a different kind of limitation can also be used to foster creativity, not to quell it. Using arbitrarily applied rules, games or formulas, deciding to only use a particular palette or instrument or narrative voice, can often act as a better idea catalyst than starting with a completely blank slate, or an anything-is-possible void.

Some people use rules; I personally prefer ‘prescriptions’ – a set of restrictive parameters in which a given work is imagined and begun, but within which there is explicit freedom; possibly more so than with ‘ideal’ conditions. This is the ‘Houdini Solution‘: thinking inside the box. In my solo piano work the prescription is that I don’t know what I will play beforehand; in the Sound Fascination project, the prescription is that the piece should be finished in one setting, and take about an hour or so. I’ve ‘broken’ both these ‘rules’ in several cases, but they remain fruitful ways to get started. 

In my opinion, regardless of what you want to call it, the essential thing is to keep it open – to remember that the rules are made to be broken. The formula can be a great place to begin, but we have to know when to let the formula go, when the drawing will only be ‘right’ if it goes outside the lines. If we are unwilling to do this, or are unwilling to go the distance when the work pushes our pre-conceived ideas of our own limitations or what we intended the work to be about, then we are limiting the best we can do – we are refusing to surprise ourselves, or let our work surprise us.

We make the rules, we break the rules

So from this angle the real trick is to play with limitations – use them as tools, set them up deliberately but at the same time, know that when things get rolling, when we feel the fascination take hold, all bets are off. We can use the prescription as long as it is useful, and abandon it the moment it seems to be overly restrictive, preventing the work from going where it ‘wants’ to go.

But at the end of the day, we need to continually remind ourselves that there are very few limitations that are absolute. In every sphere, things that were widely considered physically impossible a generation ago, if anyone even thought to imagine them, are happening every day. In fact this is happening more than ever before, as the internet sheds light on what other people are doing at the extremes of possibility, all over the world, instantly.

So my advice is to examine your presuppositions about what you can and cannot do, what your work is or is not about. Bring them into the light, begin with the assumption that they are all arbitrary, and then choose carefully: which ones are helping you, which ones holding you back?

What’s your take? Does this make sense to you? Have you had creative experiences that confirm or contradict these musings? Please leave a comment in the Discussion section below, and start or join the conversation!

continue with Inertia

* used (with much appreciation!) according to a Creative Commons license: