“Creative Limitation as a Positive Force”

Five hundred words, that’s all I needed. But a million little disasters distracted me. Compared to what a lot of people deal with, they’re not really disasters, at all. I know that. But knowledge of relative scale had ceased to provide much relief or solace after what had now been several months of low level stress and petty catastrophes. And it certainly didn’t help me focus on coming up with those five hundred words I needed for the next day’s deadline.

I sat in the shadowy glow of a blue running light upstage during Act One of Tosca at the Long Center (I work as a stagehand).

I had just given up on writing.

Seconds before, my computer had sighed a tiny almost-beep and gone blank in my lap. Its fans had stilled for the final time. The battery status indicator kept flashing once green then twice red, once green then twice red, once green then twice red. I knew its brain had fled this mortal realm. The little flashing light was merely leftover electricity with nothing else to do. My faithful machine’s last heat drained into the tops of my thighs. I pulled the power cord out of its back. The little light flashed one final time and went dark.

Surrounded as I was by my fellow stagehands, I silently swallowed against my tears and slid my laptop’s corpse into my bag. All I could think about was my WIP. It had been at least a month since I backed it up. I knew I could never exactly recreate all of the small scale tuning of my narrator’s voice that I’d been doing in that time.

I prayed to whatever god has jurisdiction over irresponsible writers and resolved to put this latest setback out of my mind until tomorrow. I pulled out my copy ofPoets & Writers’ 2014 inspiration issue. It fell open to M. Allen Cunningham’s essay called “Rethinking Restriction: Creative Limitation as a Positive Force.”

I read the first paragraph and snorted. Ha! I thought. This ought to be good. But his thesis, that it’s more useful to view “imposed limitation – in ideas or images, as well as in actual time to create” as a positive tool for a writer, intrigued me. And it certainly had specific relevance to my situation.

Some context might help. Here’s a partial list of some of what’s been eating at me since the end of last year. The first minor disaster was the partial flood of my house that required me to pull half the floor out, dry it, and reinstall it. But there have been several ongoing stressors, too. Our hot water heater has been agonal for over a year. Several plumbers have warned me it’s in its final (though hopefully still pre-dramatic-explosion) death rattle. There’s also the older, even more feeble washing machine. Getting back to discreet catastrophic events, we had a break in the main water line into our house, two tile installers who haven’t actually installed any tile in our only shower, a furnace that broke down twice, and a bunch of other annoyances. The most recent of which was the death of my computer in the dark, surrounded by Puccini’s beautiful music.

And here’s this guy telling me I just need to turn my problems into my solutions. I won’t lie; I briefly entertained some uncharitable thoughts for Mr. Cunningham. But I kept reading. I couldn’t help it. His premise that “resistance to its production [is] what makes good art good” intrigued me.



The argument has a compelling logic that I just couldn’t refute. So I stared into the silhouette of the Act Three ground row I sat upstage of, and I despaired.

I had lost my last excuse, my best justification for not writing. If lack of time (or computer), if the myriad distractions occupying my conscious mind, were not the reason I had stopped writing, then what was?

Only one answer seemed plausible: I had reached the first true test of my commitment to my writing life, and I had failed it.

I was pathetic.

I finished the article anyway. What the heck? I thought. It’s not like I had anything better to do.

In the second half of his piece Cunningham delves into the role of the conscious vs. the unconscious mind in the writing (or any creative) process. He defines that moment all writers face when we must simply stare at the blank screen or page and hope something comes as “a practice of faith.” And he’s right.

blank page.jpg

So I said another aimless prayer. I put down the magazine and picked up my notebook and pen. Whatever emotional cocktail I experienced at that moment sure didn’t feel like faith. But it wasn’t despair, either. So I kept staring down at the white paper in my lap. I kept my lucky pen poised. I noted how the blue backstage lighting had rendered the lines of the page nearly invisible. Then I pressed the tip of my pen to the paper.

Eventually it moved.