finding the edges in creativity + life
Creativity comes from limits, not freedom. — Jon Stewart
Just recently, in a writing workshop led by Dani Shapiro in Positano (as in Amalfi Coast, Italy — it didn’t suck — ) we had a conversation about edges.
Dani was talking about defining a creative project – in this particular case, a memoir. When you can write about anything and everything, you need to find a space in-between: the points where your project begins and ends.
In the case of Dani’s memoir SLOW MOTION, she decided to write about one particular year in her life. Everything she wanted to communicate, she pulled through that period of time narrated in her memoir. If the material didn’t fit inside those edges, it got cut. By making the conscious decision to focus on that year, she took a massive amount of potential material and found the shape and meaning inside it. Otherwise she would have been left with a sprawling amorphous mass that not only would have lacked structure, but also a point (not to mention a publisher).
When she chose her edges, she framed her project. She knew what to put in – and just as importantly, what to take or leave out.
There are many different ways a memoirist can find her edges. She can focus on a theme (her struggle with alcoholism) – or a place (Paris, where she moved after she quit her soul-killing corporate job in New York) – or a character (her gifted and self-destructive best friend, disfigured after childhood cancer took part of her jaw).
But one way or another, she has to locate those limits.
She has to decide what the story is not. And then subtract accordingly.
I’m fascinated with concepts like minimalism, essentialism, the nature of elegance itself. When you carve away excess, you are left with the truth of what the thing actually is, what it does, whom it serves. The meaning becomes very clear.
There is no place to hide.
Which is maybe why we’re so much more comfortable adding things instead of taking things away. You can barricade yourself inside the excess; you can fling that excess around and confuse people and act like you know what you’re talking about when you have no idea. You can remain vague. There’s a certain comfort in vagueness, in blurred edges, in everything-and-the-kitchen-sink. It feels like you’re keeping options open. You don’t have to commit, or work out the kind of clarity about identity and purpose that elegance requires. You can keep your closet as cluttered as you like – after all, just because you’ve never worn that purple leisure suit doesn’t mean you won’t need it later. (Besides, it was expensive!).
Living like this feels easy, and safe, and maybe it is. (If you don’t have edges, you don’t have to worry about falling off of them.)
But it’s not art.
It’s just a mess.
Making a clear, conscious, deliberate choice about something….is hard work. You have to sort through and prioritize and evaluate, decide what to keep and what to throw out, and then live out the consequences of those decisions. You have to trust yourself.
There’s that anecdote about Michelangelo and his block of marble. He looked at that shapeless mass and saw – inside it – the edges of David. He didn’t carve David so much as carve away everything that wasn’t David. He revealed the meaning by subtracting what had none.
We use the power of choice to sculpt our lives. We look at the raw material we have to work with, see the art of the possible, and enact a series of decisions to slowly reveal that meaning, that beauty. We locate our edges….and respect them, and honor them, and in so doing force others to honor them. Our tools include the word no, and the concept of healthy boundaries.
Without those tools – without feeling like we have the right to use them – the essence of who we are and what we’re capable of becoming remains obscured. When we don’t know where our edges are, everything is equally important, and equally unimportant.
We feel like we have to do everything and please everybody.
Or we withdraw into lethargy and paralysis.
Either way, we lose ourselves inside the overwhelm.
“When we forget our ability to choose,” writes Greg McKeown , “we learn to be helpless. Drip by drip we allow our power to be taken away until we end up becoming a function of other people’s choices – or even a function of our own past choices. In turn, we surrender our power to choose…
….[and] when we surrender our power to choose, we give others not just the power but also the explicit permission to choose for us.”
The irony is, that once we carve out form and structure, we also find our creative freedom.
When you see your edges, you know where you are.
You can walk out to the edge of your edge – and then beyond.