On Creative Limits

I haven’t experimented with collage work in awhile. Now that I am writing poetry rather comfortably and adventurously again, the urge to tinker with visual media has substantially diminished. Though not disappeared. I’ve got a stack of magazines and a folder full of clippings and other trinkets ready next time the mood strikes. 

What I like most about collaging—and why I look forward to returning to it when the time comes—has to do with limits. With the necessary restrictions placed on my creativity when I am forced to choose images from, say, three unfamiliar and unrelated magazines. (A restriction I happily place on myself.) When I enter into a creative project with no preconceptions. Without the interference of intellect or attitude. Absent the vaguest notion of what I should make (which is often, for me, a creativity killer). I am energized by the materials before me. From a small stack of unlikely images rises a tremendous sense of possibility. A thrill. A fresh and unbridled desire to discover, to make, to play. It is for those reasons that I’ve come to view collage work as an indispensable exercise for yanking me out of a creative rut. 

But all of this has also got me thinking about the impact of limits on our creativity. How being able to make whatever we want however and whenever we want it isn’t necessarily a formula for success. And how the limits of our materials, our environment, and even our abilities can represent some of our greatest creative advantages. Here are some thoughts:

Limits are a gateway to possibility.

I could never engage in a discussion about creative limits without consulting Rollo May, who, of course, has written extensively on the subject. (Those of you who’ve been around this blog long enough know how very much I admire Dr. May.) And as I dug through The Courage to Create trying to refresh my memory on his thinking about limits, I got a strong sense this is a book to which I should return very soon.

Creativity arises out of the tension between spontaneity and limitations, the latter (like the river banks) forcing the spontaneity into the various forms which are essential to the work of art or poem. – Rollo May

I find I often have an exceedingly difficult time creating from a preconceived idea. From a should. From a tightly defined concept of what I think will satisfy my desire for beauty, for aestheticization, or self-expression. 

Rather, my inner experience tells me that I am at my best when my concept is loose and my drive to create—my sense of possibility—is high. When I am drawing inspiration from my environment, from my materials, from the moment. When I’m asking myself, Ooooh, what can I make with THAT?! I am excited. I am playful. My mind is sharp and energetic—and moving in a million competing directions. That wild and wonderful proliferation of ideas that yields a kind of ecstasy in itself. And is, for me, a vital dimension of creativity. Without that infusion of life, my imagination does not roam freely. I do not work as intuitively. And the result lacks in both depth and momentum.

In creative endeavors the imagination operates in juxtaposition with form. When these endeavors are successful, it is because imagination infuses form with its own vitality. – Rollo May

Limits can change our perspective. 

If I am stuck at the outset of a poem (or anywhere in the middle), I’ll search for new and different words. (Fellow writers, I am certain, understand that we often fall prey to our obsessions, those words and images that come to us automatically and that we return to again and again and from which we are best suited to find alternatives.) And I’ll look only in what’s around me. In a book or an article I’m reading. In poem, story, or song titles. In quotes or lyrics. Even on social media. And I recombine them for a line or two. Or a stanza. Until I’ve created an image or series of images that surprises even me. Often, all it takes to get my imagination working in exciting and novel directions is to be forced out of my normal.

Limits can force us to become masters of our craft.

Or close to it, anyway. I, for example, tend to be a very visual thinker. All of my poetry is composed of images, or scenes, that I experience in my mind first and then attempt to articulate (Psychedelic poems like Seven Road and Sandman Express are especially vivid). And there are moments in which I yearn to be able to draw or paint or otherwise visually express the images that have taken root in my mind. But writing is my talent. And I can’t even draw a stick figure without a ruler. So I employ visual imagery. I play with color, texture, size, dimension, movement. I work within the limits of my skill set and so continually hone my talents. Stretch the limits of my imagination and test my ability to use language in interesting and novel ways. It is true I am no master (yet), but if I could do it all—if I were full of unlimited potential in all directions—then I would most assuredly be a very dissatisfied master of none.


…and it goes great with tequila. A fantastic photo of my new chapbook, Seven Road & Other Poems, from the artist who helped bring that creative vision to life, Colorado native, T. Blake.

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10 thoughts on “On Creative Limits

  1. This is enlightening – I fully concur. The words I use to create a picture aren’t poetry, but it’s the same concept, the same path through the concourse of patterns we use to shape and define that forces an emotional connection.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for the response! I also think, regardless of our talents and preferred forms of self-expression, that creativity takes a similar course in each of us. It’s good to know your experience is similar.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a fantastic essay. I usually seek inspiration from what I read, but I find that if I immerse myself in a book and read too much, my creativity slowly dissipates. Which is why, I read until there’s a slight hypomanic strain running through me, and then write.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi, Nitin. Thank you for the comment. I think I know just what you mean by the “hypomanic strain” (a great way to phrase it) that gets you up and writing. I, too, tend to write more when I am reading less. Thank you for sharing. I am glad you found this post useful.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Limits, possibilities, the moment, I felt these three together in my mind as I read your post. I feel in the moment now, which happens when I read your work, I feel present. Very well done. I wish I could still drink tequila. I literally haven’t touched it since one night in college (in Spain I came to enjoy gin and tonics which were mostly gin). And I am enjoying reading Seven Road & Other Poems very much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! It sounds like you and I are of a similar mind when it comes to tequila…gin, too. I am glad my writing helps you have that experience. I think that feeling present, immersed as we read is often similar to the immersion of creative activity. And I am happy you’re enjoying the book! I very much appreciate your kind feedback and your support.

      Liked by 1 person

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