Creativity is kin to spirituality.
As a writer and a pastor, I am always intrigued by how the creative process—for any artist—tracks so closely the movement of the Spirit. The key to creativity, I find, also fits the lock and opens the door of the soul. And that key is: limits.
Everything about our world screams endless possibilities. All you see on television are people who hold in the palm of their hand a small, sleek device, calling up anything the planet has to offer. It appears so freeing, images of blue skies and wispy clouds slipping by, but what seems like a larger world is actually crushingly small. At least, that is, if you know you have a soul. If you want to be creative, if you want to be a spiritual seeker (and the two follow a strikingly similar path), what you need is something or someone to impose limits upon you.
In his book, Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon writes, “The way to get over creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself. It seems contradictory, but when it comes to creative work, limitations mean freedom. Write a song on your lunch break. Paint a painting with only one color. Start a business without any start-up capital. Shoot a movie with your iPhone and a few of your friends. Build a machine out of spare parts. Don’t make excuses for not working—make things with the time, space, and materials you have, right now.”
Yesterday was W. H. Auden’s birthday, and my daily writer’s almanac supplied me with this gem. “His [Auden’s] first American teaching gig was at a boys’ prep school, where he asked his students to write essays in which every sentence contained a lie.” That’s imposing limits. Dr. Seuss’s editor bet him he couldn’t write a book using just fifty different words. So constrained, the doctor penned Green Eggs and Ham, won the bet and produced a best-selling classic for all time. It was certainly not my most polished homily, but the eulogy I offered at the funeral of my friend Wallace Sellers lives in my mind as my most creative and triumphant. That’s because, five minutes before the funeral was to begin, Wallace’s wife told me she was so grateful that I was the one who would offer the eulogy. Apparently, in the fog of grief, the family had not informed me, but I was not about to disappoint this woman. On the back of the service bulletin I scribbled three words that conjured Wallace in my heart, stood and delivered.
When life paints us into a corner, we naturally want more options, more room to maneuver, more power to determine our fate. I need more time, more money, a stronger body, a sharper mind. I can’t find happiness and peace until I find a better wife, a decent boss, less treacherous children, more attentive friends, and a bigger house with larger windows and more light where there are no toys scattered on the floor and no scale on the tub and no cat shit on the rug.
Spiritual wisdom teaches us to be keenly alive to these moments when we feel trapped, because they hold the key to ultimate freedom. We find our joy not when we can make the world snap to attention, but when we release our need for something bigger and better and more promising. If we follow the arc of the Spirit, it will always pull us down into a place of less and less, where we are being stripped and shorn, until we think, by God, there’s nothing left of me. Which is when things start quivering.
What an awesome post, David! And I completely agree. My favorite phrase: “less treacherous children”!!!
Great post, David. So many of the great works of art (and littler ones too) were done on deadline, on spec. Bach’s cantata’s were sung on Sunday morning and the choir had to have something to sing. They say form follows function and it does. But, if I’m reading you right, you’re saying it also leads.
David Anderson says
That’s great–the deadline, and Bach on deadline producing masterworks (but … let’s be honest, he was a genius!)
Sam Schreiner says
Keen thoughts David. I also would apply this to marriage. The limits allows love to grow deep between two rather than dissipate. Blessings friend – Sam Schreiner, Noroton.
David Anderson says
Yes, I thought of that as I was writing–the limits that enlarge love. Thanks for adding that, Sam.
Elizabeth Ohlson says
Superb, David. Your one hypothesis conjured up for you and your readers a multitude of applications. And on a similar track, I once heard a podcast in which the lecturer posited that numerous choices produce anxiety; that limited options are more freeing.
Thank you so much for sharing your gift with us!
sally johnson says
As a Gemini, options drive me nuts. Give me limits any day! Thank you always, David, for your keen, and yes, your limitless thoughts.
Liz Anderson says
So true. I think that is why many of us procrastinate-because it artificially imposes a limit which ups our creativity (and stress). Some of our children may well be the more treacherous because they too have more freedom than is good for them. A pencil numb and a prison wall may indeed produce the best poetry but imposing limits on ourselves is difficult. That’s probably why Twitter is so popular. Maybe that is why we work too hard, sleep too little, and always want more-too many options.
Dave Griffith says
I never knew the story of the Wallace eulogy. It stands as a standard of grace in my mind. I also know that many of our best moments and thoughts are our first. No doubt the most honest and pure, forget what the editor says. Play the cards you get. Well said and well played. Thanks
Cathy H. says
Thank you for sharing! “When life paints us into a corner, we naturally want more options…” – so true for me. However, too many choices and I take too much time weighing them all. The counter intuitive part: my ultimate freedom is waiting within my self-imposed limits. I love that.
The concepts of surrendering and letting go are so hard for me. But those few moments when I am able, “Ahhhhh.” In my struggles I have begun saying “Be weak,” to myself in lieu of “Be strong,” because when I try to fight something with my strength I have already lost. Excellent post, thank you.
I feel the same about limits. I think they plant us in one place long enough to work with what we have rather than waiting to work with what we don’t – and may never – have. It worked for my dissertation – it was written while Colin napped!
I am reading your book Losing You Faith Finding Your Soul for the Lenton season. To save my soul, I had to leave the very anti Semitic PCUSA. I was so traumatized by the hatred in my PCUSA church I had to seek counseling from an Episcopalian therapist who recommends your work,. It is ironic to me that many have to leave an organized religious group to regain their relationship with God .Your book is helpful at a very difficult time when my faith has been shattered . I am trying to remind myself that God is a denomination or a misguided minister. I hope I can find my way back with time.
God is NOT a denomination