Self-limitation is a strange process. It’s something that the artist does in a multitude of ways and from large to miniscule magnitudes.
Writers limit themselves by putting up boundaries. By, you might even say, putting ourselves in a box. And I’m not just talking about ideas, though that’s a part of it. It’s how we tackle our careers, our image, and even our vision. There are many ways that a person can, and does, prevent ourselves from writing creatively.
The worst part is it’s a process we are completely unaware that is happening. The subconscious is sitting there, trying to make things normal—as it does—trying to categorize everything, and bam, it decides, “It has to be done this way.” And we, so in love and brainwashed by our handsome instinct, just listen to it, completely unaware of how controlling it’s being.
The five most common forms of limitation are trying to be original, trying to be realistic, trying to be an instinctual genius, trying to be pure in our vision, or even just trying to be elitist.
Now, I must clarify that there are many times in which these limitations are legitimate, understandable, and even sensible. There’s a clear place in which you might read your own work and go, “This isn’t realistic,” and obviously find that a problem. What I’m advocating is not that originality, realism, purity of vision, or anything else is a bad thing; I’m saying that it’s not the only thing.
Take for instance the first boundary: the obsession with being purely original. I claim that originality is not a quality of good writing, but a means to achieve a quality of good writing. Which is to say, if something is meaningful and entertaining, but not original, there’s no problem. It just seems hard to picture a cliché work being meaningful and entertaining. In any case, the issue arises with the fact that if the author is so focused on writing what hasn’t been written before, he’s not going to be writing what he wants.
We get over it. Eventually. After writing about two or three novels, it starts to occur to the author how ridiculous it is. Some people are prodigies and do it within the first six pages. But if you’re not at that stage yet, let me expedite the process and say it’s important that the story is yours, not that it’s “original.” So, while writing something that’s already been written isn’t a good thing, it’s okay to take what’s already been made and change it until it’s something that only you could have come up with.
The limitation of being original removes a ridiculous number of creative options. If we wanted to be over the top about it, we could even say, all the options, as everything has been done before.
Realism is more painful and less obvious. This is a prominent problem especially within the acting community. The artist, without being aware of it, decides that their art needs to be a pure reflection of reality, and refuses to think of anything that could be considered, “Silly.”
Again, there are places it can make sense. Someone who is only “silly,” doesn’t have any commitment to the piece, and neither does the audience. We want to grasp onto something real, even in comedy and absurdism. If the work has no sincerity, no one’s going to care. But, on the other hand, art isn’t always realistic, and doesn’t always need to be. I call it the Jim Carey method. It’s a stylized version of reality that is over the top enough to be entertaining, but not so much so that the audience is brought out of immersion.
A prime example of my own form of limitation is “realistic fighting.” Instead of having my characters (who are in supernatural worlds, I might add) do flips and jump off buildings, punch people through tables, and gracefully take a hit, I have them get the crap beaten out of them.
When I realized this I could sit down and consciously ask why I felt inclined to make these fights so (as I perceived them) realistic over entertaining. It’s not like anyone who watches action movies is sitting there crying out, “A fridge wouldn’t save you from a nuclear blast!”
But, all jokes aside, watch an action flick. Look at all these moves that the actors clearly didn’t do without ropes and special affects. And ask yourself if you, the audience, care that it’s not something you’d see an everyday cop do. Sure, sometimes it’s bothersome, such as in the case of our dear friend Mr. Jones, but it doesn’t mean that you should limit yourself to realism without the committed decision of “I’m going to write the most realistic story ever.” If that’s not the main point of the book, then it’s not something you need to care about.
But the biggest pain that we have to face, if not the most common, is our obsession with being a born-genius. Americans, as I have said, admire innate talents far over any learned ones. We love child prodigies, no matter if they’re old and mediocre now. We give them far more credit than the person who worked his ass off learning rhythm and tone.
I perceive it akin to women who buy clothing two sizes too small. The reason why female styles don’t have a universal sizing system is because the companies know that if it says we’re a four instead of a six, we’re more likely to buy it. Which is precisely how a size zero came into existence.
One of the prime mistakes of shopping, however, is when someone purchases the size they want to be rather than the size they are. By being in denial about it, by choosing to ignore reality, to act as if the world is the way it should be rather than the way it is, their size (which may have been perfectly attractive before) is now exaggerating flaws. Pants too small will give you a muffin top, and where in the appropriate jeans the curves would look good, now the woman just looks fat.
This is the same thing as what artists do with innate talent. We want to be born-genius so bad, that we are in denial about the reality. And the reality is that, no matter how much you believe in nature over nurture, no matter how many talents you were “born” with, there are some things that an author is not going to be able to do right off the bat.
Yet, instead of addressing it, saying, I can’t depend on my handsome subconscious to lead me down the right path and I’m going to have to do some actual thinking, authors will be in denial about it.
For example, creativity stems from two places. One is the subconscious’s definition of “normalcy” is different than the average definition of “normalcy.” Whereas most people will name “carrot” when asked for a vegetable, some might say, “corn,” or even, “avocado.” This is the one we want to be true, not only because it’s easier, but it’s because what the American culture respects. (Noting that 1. Not all my readers are American, and 2. Lot’s of other cultures respect it too.) The reality is, however, that any author who subconsciously defines all normalcy as different than others do wouldn’t be able to communicate. This means that you and I both are going to come up with the same knee-jerk reaction to a question at one point or another, and, being that a quality of good writing has to do with the perception of repeatability, you could see how this might be a bad thing.
The trick is to not limit yourself to being innately creative, but recognizing that you can be intellectually creative. By noticing the trick (everyone is going to say carrot) you can logically choose to be more interesting.
And it’s not a lie, and it’s not a con, and it’s not a bad thing. If an author believes that being aware of his knee-jerk reactions (say, making a family live in a suburban house) and changing them to something more creative (say, putting them in a yurt) is lying about who he is, or whatever nonsense he wants to come up with, then he needs to accept that he’s as creative as he is, end of story. But the person willing to work on it, willing to take from the subconscious and conscious, will become as creative as he wants to be.
Next we have the purity of vision. This is something I recommend to most authors, or at least, having a vision. But we can get a little ridiculous about it.
I once imagined a future scene in which my female character was driving and my male character was in the passenger’s seat. When I actually got to the part, however, it worked out that he was the one driving and she was in the passenger’s seat. I started to work out a way and a reason for them to switch, when I realized that not only was it going to add about 2,000 words to my already long book, but I didn’t really have a reason that it had to be that way.
Recognizing that allowed me to open my little mind.
This is a problem that not only affects inane decisions, but it is something that will often cause indecision. In order to maintain the purity of the concept, we often avoid making active choices, because active choices, no matter how minor, will change the atmosphere, character, and tone, as well as sometimes even plot. I choose to say, “she laughed,” instead of, “she said,” and the image of her speaking is completely altered.
Except that maintaining a tone by trying to use non-influential words (such as said) adds no information. The story indicates what it’s about and then consistently maintains that same tone and atmosphere throughout the book; no one cares because nothing is changing or being added.
This shows in things like backstory, in which we didn’t envision his parents, and then suddenly there’s a benefit to having them be, I don’t know, lawyers. But because this new piece of information can alter how we see the character, authors are inclined not to make it, wanting to leave the world as vague as possible. Vagueness leaves all options available. So it’s appealing to an author to try to keep all his doors open. Yet it’s more appealing to an audience to have him actually go through one.
As for elitism, the ideas of “I can’t do that” and “I can’t do this” because it’s not “the image I want to have,” creates boundaries from snobby (if not accurate) perceptions. It includes, “I don’t write short films,” to “I don’t do nonfiction,” to “I’m a writer, not an intern!” It can even orient around ideas. “I refuse to write about vampires,” or “I’m not going to write for an audience. I will only write for me.” Or even, “I refuse to write for myself, I will only write for an audience.” “Never use said,” “Always use said,” “Semicolons are off limits,” “How dare you start with a dream sequence?” “You’re not allowed to write for blank, blank, or blank reasons…”
Again, sometimes it’s beneficial to have boundaries. Refusing work because you don’t get paid can help your reputation and how much people respect you. It can also limit your options. As long as you are aware of it and making active choices, rather being in denial, then the problem of the limitations isn’t an issue.
The trick about limiting yourself is to not do it in any direction. An author can’t prevent himself from using adverbs if he wants variation. An author also can’t limit himself to only using adverbs. Nothing is right and wrong, no matter how much your subconscious or your college professor tells you otherwise. Limiting yourself because of this idea of “right and wrong,” because of “what you should be doing,” because of “how it should be,” is limiting creativity.
The real problem is that people limit creativity both by refusing to do something and refusing to do something new. The problem with using said is not the actual word, but the inflexibility to try new things, to find a different way to say, “He spoke at her,” then the tried and true way.
The best way to overcome the box is to be aware of it. Recognize your assumptions and your hang-ups, and always question the reward-cost ratio. Start telling your subconscious, “there is no should,” and start asking, “How does this help me?”
You are allowed to do anything you want. Now you just have to become more aware of the options.