Posts Tagged ‘limits’

In both composing music and writing, we talk about the value of limits.

Shouldn’t the imagination be limitless, you might ask?

Well, yes and no. Without some sort of structure within which to organize the imagination, the end result tends to be disjointed, rambling, and/or incoherent. Structure tends to allow the impact of a work to be more easily conveyed and understood. Even experiments in looser structure or “no” structure are informed by their structure or lack thereof, and they are using that difference or lack to say something.

This is why in music we have different forms: the sonata, the concerto, the art song cycle, the rondo, the fugue. Each form has its rules, and the rules must be understood before some of them may perhaps be broken or subverted or played with. In a similar way, prose has different forms, common structures, and genres that form sandboxes within which we play. (And even if we leave the sandbox all together, it’s rare that our work isn’t somehow informed by that fact.)

Structure lends definition to our ideas, which in turn gives us more artistic freedom. If we literally have every single note of every single rhythmic value at every time at our disposal, there are so many possibilities it becomes difficult to think. We face decision paralysis, or at the very least spend huge amounts of time considering such a large number of alternatives, most of which wouldn’t be very effective at all in practice. Structure frees us to consider more possibilities by narrowing down the scope of our canvas.

A very structured waffle. I can attest to the fact that it was quite delicious.

A very structured waffle. I can attest to the fact that it was quite delicious.

Sometimes life feels very similar to me. As nice as all that advice sounds to “live life without limits,” if you spend more than a few minutes thinking about it, it’s simply not practical. We are constantly placing limits on ourselves and our lives: where we decide to live (or if we decide to be nomadic, because that places different constraints); what careers/education we decide to pursue; what lifestyle choices we make; how we spend our time. Because each minute we decide to spend practicing piano is a minute we aren’t going to be spending writing or cooking dinner or hanging out with family or what-have-you. Ultimately we are limited by the number of hours in the day, by the number of hours we need to spend sleeping, and by our finite life spans, as well as by a host of other individual mental, emotional, and physical traits.

While some of these limits can be frustrating (why do I need eight hours of sleep per night? why?), they ultimately allow us to set our priorities and pursue our lives according to what we value and find important. Overall this is a positive thing.

Except when it isn’t. We become so used to living within limits and imposing more limits upon ourselves, at a certain point we might stop being conscious with our decisions. Not only that, we might not even recognize there is a choice in the first place. This is when limits move from being a force of good to being a force that holds people back.

Limits help us make decisions, be who we want to be, and accomplish what we want to accomplish. But limits also exist to be questioned. It is only through questioning that we can discover which limits are useful and which are unnecessary. It is only through questioning that we can determine which limits are real and which are unconscious beliefs we hold that might not actually be true.

It is only through questioning that we can realize our full potential, whether that be in a specific creative project or the creative project that is life.


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I don’t like knowing my limits. In fact, I prefer the opposite: I like believing that I have very few limits, and making this belief as true as possible through sheer force of will. And when I discover that I have limits that won’t budge through will power alone, I try to create a work-around or at the very least find a more positive way to frame it for myself. 

I’m thinking about this right now because it turns out I’ve been fighting off a bacterial infection in my tooth for the past two and a half months. Fighting and losing, I might add. In spite of this, January was one of my more productive months in recent memory. In addition to writing ten essays for this website, I completed almost a third of my new novel-in-progress and wrote two new short stories. At the same time, I was thinking, “This is great, I’m so excited by what I’m doing, but why can’t I do more? Why am I so tired?” Only now do I have the understanding as to why these accomplishments exhausted me quite as much as they did.

So now it’s time for me to focus on taking care of myself, which is requiring a little bit of juggling over in Priority Central. The problem is, I believe that taking care of myself is a high priority, but sometimes it gets lost in the shuffle of other, flashier, more exciting priorities. When confronted with the choice between starting a new project and sitting around resting, I’d rather start the project. Plus I have this built-in Protestant work ethic that starts screaming at the slightest sign of the dread vice Sloth. And we won’t go into a certain pervasive stubborn streak in my nature.

Which is why I’m only stopped in my tracks now, when my tooth aches to the point where I might not mind ripping it out with my own fingers. I can’t keep working at my normal pace because I am physically incapacitated enough that I cannot concentrate. Here it is: I’ve reached my limit.

This week I’m forcing myself to take it easy. I don’t have specific word count goals or project goals. I’m trying to suppress my frustration at being delayed on all of this work that I’m so excited about doing. After all, I’m pretty lucky to be so enthusiastic about my work in the first place, and the excitement will keep. (Hear that, excitement? You are so going to stick around.) I’m going to watch some cheesy movies and TV shows, and I’m going to sleep as much as possible around my schedule of medicines. And I’m going in for more dental work, which is why I’m going to need all this recovery time in the first place.

This is life. I want it to be smooth, but it’s not. It’s bumpy, and it gets in the way of itself all the time. I don’t even get to bank up this being-good-to-myself time because I might need more of it later, depending on what this tooth has to say for itself. I want to stay up late every night and drink every minute in and live my dreams right this second, all the time. I want to be larger than life, but I’m not, at least not as often as I’d like. Sometimes I can’t do much of anything but sit here and wait to feel better and let numerous more knowledgeable people poke at my tooth. That is a limit, yes indeed.

But better to pack as much as possible within those pesky limits than miss out on being alive at all.

Anyone else run into an inconvenient limit lately? Feel free to commiserate below.

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