Austin Kleon in the final chapter of his book Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative gives some amazing creative advice. Tilting the chapter “Creativity is Subtraction,” Kleon talks about the benefits of putting limitations upon your creative process. It’s a great chapter in a great book that you really ought to read, and in this chapter he includes this quote from Jack White:
“Telling yourself you have all the time in the world, all the money in the world, all the colors in the palette, anything you want—that just kills creativity.”
Ever since I read this book, I’ve been mulling it over because I know that there has to be something spiritual about this concept of finding greater creative expression through limitations. In thinking about this, I remembered this passage:
The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant,
giving light to the eyes.
God has placed limits upon our lives. His commands form the safe boundaries for life upon this earth, and the Bible makes it clear that the best life that could be lived upon this earth can only be found within those boundaries.
The Benefit of Boundaries
Why does God give us boundaries? Is it to limit our fun? No, I think, in a way, it’s to increase the quality of our fun over the quantity. Sure, as a Christian, some things are off-limits for me. They are “out of bounds,” but I know that God has a reason for this. Like any loving father, He’s trying to keep me safe. I never want to steal enjoyment from my daughter, but even still, I will not let her poke the dog in the face, no matter how much fun she thinks it’s going to be. Why? I know better. I know that even if poking the dog is fun for now it won’t be fun when the dog bites her.
By limiting, in a sense, the areas in which we can fun, God is gently forcing us to dig deeper in the areas available to us, to find the deeper, divine enjoyment behind all true and holy pleasure.
Boundaries and limitations upon the creative process force us to go deeper in a smaller areas, goading us to more profound levels of creation and originality. Instead of constantly searching for the newest “new,” we get to be discover new things about the “old,” which is something very much akin to what God has done in us.
We are tiny creators made by the ultimate Creator, the infinite, uncaused First Cause of Every Effect. For God, all of the creative acts He undertook in Genesis 1 was a series of increasingly limited created acts. Every creation we produce is, in itself, a declaration of limitations. I write blog posts, not songs. I limit myself right off the bat, and I think that’s how it should be. By limiting myself to prose, I find a greater freedom to create with the gifts and skills I have rather than wondering around trying to find my way in the (seemingly) limitless expanse of human creative expression.
If I can, I’d like to continue this theoretical discussion by complicating it further with a ridiculous analogy from The Lego Movie.
Emmet, the Bricksburg everyman, doesn’t realize his potential as a Master Builder until he has an encounter with “The Man Upstairs.” Once Emmet has met what we could count as a stand-in for his creator, he discovers both purpose and potential. All of sudden, he sees innumerable possibilities for creative expression. Are his possibilities limited? Of course. By the pieces available to him, the time window in which he must build, and even the finite nature of his own mind limits what he can build, and yet even within these limits, even within the limit of building within the purpose given to him, Emmet feels set free. There is a freedom, spiritual and creative, in having limitations.
Down to the Practical
Having boundaries, having limitations, doesn’t short-change our creative expression: it focuses it. So, to close this out with a bit of practicality, let’s look at three quick things that could help you to improve your focus, your creative output through limitations.
1) Start with a purpose in mind. Creative expression should express something. Creating without the intention of expression results in hollow work.
2) Give yourself temporary limitations to stretch your skills. If you’re a prose writer, try writing only in rhyme. If you’re a poet, try writing free verse or even descriptive prose. If you’re a painter or an illustrator, limit your color selection. If you’re a multi-talented musician, try using an instrument you don’t use a lot as you write a song. Just like a weightlifter has to eventually add some weight, add some limitations as an experiment in creative exercise.
3) Add some spontaneity to your creative process. Do you have some set creative times and places? Change it up. Go to a new cafe. Write outside. Paint in a bare room. This might now seem like a limitation, but a change in setting or time or time limit is a change to your psychological systems, systems that seek the path of least resistance and, so in, find a comfort in the metal and creative options provided in an established setting and time. By changing those factors, you cut off those old paths and habits, a distinct limitation on your brain, even if it’s a limitation that actually offers new and possibly more options. It’s still a type of limitation.
Friends, limitations aren’t the enemy, and in fact, they can lead us to find our greatest strength and our purest creative expressions. Let’s embrace the limitations that God has placed upon our lives by find our truest creative expression through relationship with the only truly unlimited One, God Almighty.