There once was a blues band called Earth from Birmingham (the England one, not the Alabama one) who played a bunch of dives where people wouldn’t shut up. Many audiences don’t shut up. What I mean is that these drunks were loud. So Earth went with the solution that had worked for the Beatles back in their loud, drunken audience days in Hamburg: they got louder. As the volume went up, the sound changed. The guitar and bass sounded more distorted. The singer had to get a little more screamy. The drummer beat any subtlety right out of existence. Their bluesiness maybe sounded a little less bluesey.
One day, Earth left their practice space and looked across the street at the movie theater marquee, which advertised the horror movie currently playing. The story goes that the band watched some couples leaving the theater clutching one another tightly. The guitarist, probably looking for a bigger audience, said something like, “Hey, people like being scared. What if we played scary music?” The rest of the guys liked the idea so much, they not only agreed to it, they changed the band’s name to match that of the film that was playing, Black Sabbath.
For those of you unfamiliar with blues music, let me tell you, it’s usually not scary. The group’s sound got a bit farther from the blues and a bit closer to something else that didn’t necessarily have a category at the time.
With no airplay, but a hell of a lot of work, the band began to gain popularity. At one point they were making enough money that the guitarist, Tony Iommi, came home for lunch from his factory job and announced to his mother that he wasn’t going back to work. Perhaps not wanting him to burn any bridges, his mother convinced him to go back and at least finish out his shift. Back at the factory, Tony got himself caught in one of the machines and lost the tips of two fingers on his left hand. (Maybe it was an irony factory)
MUSIC TRIVIA MOMENT: Fingertips are largely regarded as important to guitarists.
Now, in many families, this would mark the beginning of a decades-long resentment and an early death by alcohol consumption, but Tony was a little better than that. He fashioned himself a couple of prosthetic fingertips from what I’ve heard were melted plastic bottle caps, though I don’t know if plastic bottle caps were a thing in the early seventies.
But here’s the part that’s more important for my purposes than the origin of the fingertip material: Even with his new fingertips, Tony found it painful to hold his tight strings down against the fretboard. He decided to wind the keys down a bit, slackening the strings three steps down from standard tuning. Geezer Butler, the band’s bass player tuned his instrument to match. This brought Black Sabbath two steps closer to their signature sound. They could go lower on the low end than most groups did and the slack strings gave the instruments a distinct rubber band sort of twang.
The point of all this is to look back at the title of this post.
When I was a lad in Moosup Elementary School, our art teacher was Mrs Hinchey. (My apologies if I spelled your name wrong, Mrs. Hinchey) I had no idea how smart she was at the time because I was a bit wrapped up in my own problems with pastels on black paper, but years later, she was my teacher again for a bit, maybe middle school, maybe junior high, and that’s when I realized it. In one class, she gave us our medium of the day and told us to have at it. Some kids jumped into the project without missing a beat. Many kids stared at the materials and at one another wondering what to make. That’s when Mrs. Hinchey fuckin’ unleashed it on us. Here’s what she said:
“If you’re having trouble figuring out what to make, it’s not because you don’t have any ideas. It’s because you have too many ideas."
Go look at the title of this post again.
Which of these writing prompts is easier to get going on?
1) A story about anything you want.
2) A story about a guy who is trying to coax his dying car across Soviet Russia.
To go back to music again for a moment, as a kid, Ringo Starr was ill and couldn’t go to school for many months. Somebody set a drum kit in front of him and he learned how to play, because what else was he going to do?
His drum kit was set up for a right-handed drummer even though he was left-handed. Some of his most creative drum fills when he was with the Beatles came about because his orientation was the opposite of what it should have been and because he had to move his arms a little differently in order to avoid knocking into cymbal stands with his arms.
Your limitations are your strengths. I didn’t even make you scroll back up for that one.
Ryan Holiday wrote a book called The Obstacle is the Path, full of sweet-ass examples of what I’m talking about. It’s based on an aspect of the philosophy of stoicism which, in a nutshell, goes something like this: “Welp, here I am. Now what am I going to do about it?" A hardcore stoic takes her setbacks and turns them into advantages.
Let’s look at me.
I write. I’ve been diagnosed with the depression, with the ADD. I work well in short bursts, so that’s how I write. Sometimes I can’t bring myself to hit a key, so I don’t, and I’ve been through the cycle enough that I know it will pass. Come back tomorrow or the next day. It’ll be okay. But this means that every time I attack the keyboard, I’m in an extreme state of mind. I’m hot to write and I’m stuffing everything I’ve got that day into a page or two.
I like ideas to the exclusion of some other important things. I like heavy stylists. This combination along with my very brief writing interludes can make my work seem dense and devoid of nuance. I own that shit. I make it my voice. Yes, you should always work to improve your weak areas, but I believe if all your areas are in balance, you may be washing out the eccentricities that make your work truly great. Embrace your strengths until they burst. If people want balance, they’re in luck. There are hundreds of other writers for them to read. If they want a ride, they’ll read you.
My podcast, Beware the Hairy Mango, wasn’t popular, but it was unique. As an artist, that was more important to me. It was five minutes long because every word of it was scripted to keep me from “umm”s and “uhh”s. It was funny, because that’s a strength of mine. (You disagree. Humor is subjective, I know. Go with me.) It was absurdist because that idea thing again. It was delivered at top speed, with pauses edited out, because there were things that I thought weren’t that funny, but if they were presented as if they were, and you didn’t have time to think about them, you’d assume they were funny, and maybe even laugh. There was no other podcast out there like it because no one else brought my specific set of limitations to a show.
Let’s look at you.
You don’t have time to write. Those individual sentences you get to scribble down on the office printer paper during your smoke break pack an entire day’s worth of punch.
Your family is driving you crazy. Unleashing on them in prose is the most raw and passionate work you’ve ever allowed yourself.
You have physical limitations. You’re forced to approach your art through a medium or a method most people wouldn’t consider and your results don’t quite resemble anything else you’ve ever seen.
You have psychological limitations. Your art may be exquisitely controlled. It may be told in a voice so different that it shocks your audience.
The “J” key is broken on your keyboard. You’ll have to get creative with words and your characters have now developed an interesting new dialect.
Or maybe you take those things in a different direction .
The point is there’s no limit on problems. You can let them eat you alive. You can also use them to shape your work into your fingerprint (or plastic bottle cap print, depending on your situation.) If you’re making art, your voice is the only thing you’ve got. Your voice is what happens when your vision gets squeezed through the birth canal of everyday circumstance.
Stop using your problems to avoid making your art. Take your problems to your art and pile them all on top of the accelerator.
UPDATE 1-16-17: If you like stories about limitations steering art, the latest episode of the Cracked podcast is full of them. "Mistakes That Created the Best Art of the Last 100 Years" http://www.cracked.com/podcast/accidents-that-created-best-art-20th-century/