The coffee shop had writers in it. Perhaps not wall-to-wall writers, but enough that it became clear that something literary lay in the unpolished wood floor, reaching upwards, calling out to those that create while questioning creation. At one table, a group of women discussed Nanowrimo, and talked about what it meant to be a “real writer.” It sounded like a couple of them had it wrong, what it meant, but it was obvious they were writing and not stopping each other from writing, so I turned my attention to my laptop. This was the second location that day where my tiny Lenovo refused to play nice with the wireless. At this point, I’d even veered off from Minneapolis into Saint Paul, down into one of the deeper byways beyond Harriet Island. I liked this place. I wanted to work here. While never married to atmosphere – I’ve written in moving cars and airplanes, on park benches, in grocery lines – I liked this place. It had the same seeding quality of Hard Times Café in Seward, minus the people in obvious drug withdrawal common to the place late at night. I had gone far out of my way to find this place, and I wanted to make a second home here. I wanted it to work.
I became chatty with the barista as she did her best to reset the router for me; I rarely speak so much to strangers on the first meeting, but I’d had a lot of coffee already, and I could already tell that this atmosphere influenced me. Something within the building, in its 19th century yellow ceiling and radiator-heated walls wanted me to come back, too. So it was urging me to talk, urging me to show the chit-chatty Diana some people never see in a decade.
“I’m just really frustrated,” I shared. “I’ve been tooling along on this nonfiction book, and so now I’m trying my hand at fiction, and it seems like one thing after another has gotten in its way.”
The barista looked back at me. “Maybe you’re only meant to write nonfiction.” It hangs in the air; she believes this, but I can see the lie of it, whispered in her ear. Writers frequent this place, and yes, so do their demons and bullshit.
“No, that’s not it,” I tell her. “This is just the crap and bugs that fly out whenever you make a change.”
She nods, and I discover that miraculously, my Dropbox program synced up before I left the house that day. While I did waste time trying to hop online, I could still work, and I made the most of what I could, closing my manuscript on Day 2 of Nanowrimo with a solid 4020 words, and a sense that yes, I am hearing this story more than I am telling it.
I could have taken the excuse she gave me, but instead I stayed true to my truth. I did not absorb the limitation she offered, although five years ago I would have gripped onto it tight.
Writers do this. Artists do this. People do this.
There’s a tendency to propose limitations for others; this differs from pointing them out. This is the idea of creating and instilling limits – it is artificial, a creativity blocking behavior, and is harm under the guise of support. We all have limits, and it’s part of our lives to discover them, test them, experiment with our ability to overcome them – or to incorporate them and make them boundaries that help structure the work we do. It is not our job to propose limits to one another, and yet this is what we do all too often.
We have this “there can be only one” mentality that has spread from religious outlook to this idea that every person has one identity, one ability, one true role in life. We face aging with bitterness, under the assumptions that the roles fade, and then so do we, into nothingness at all. So many assume that there’s nothing that comes after, no new avenue to try, and there’s no use exploring the world again as we’ve seen what we’re going to see of it.
This is absolute crap.
I was asked once, when participating in a writer’s panel, “which one I would choose,” when I explained the multiple projects I had only recently seeded at the time. I countered, “Why do I have to choose one?”
No real answer came. There is no positive argument for monogamy when it comes to creative endeavors.
The show Boardwalk Empire, directed by Martin Scorcese and produced by Mark Wahlberg thrills me. It shows me my favorite era in history – the 1920s – with gritty realism and brilliance, made all the better by the presence of Steve Buscemi. I share this show with friends eagerly; I consider it the best period drama on television right now, and I want to share in the delight and awe that the characters bring forth from within me.
One man I shared this with balked at the appearance of Mark Wahlberg in the production credits. “Marky Mark?” he spluttered. “The guy with the underwear?”
“He’s got some good production credits and is a decent actor,” I answered.
“But he’s Marky Mark!”
“So what, he can do only one thing with his life?”
“Yes!” he snapped back.
He ignored me when I asked, “Why?”
It seemed obvious to me that Mark Wahlberg’s lack of limits triggered some upset concerning this young man and the limits he had chosen for himself.
Authentic limits are boundaries that shape us. They give us guidelines, a framework to work within. They help us get things down. Deadlines are limits. Personal dislikes and disinterests are limits. Those things that we just don’t want to do are limits. We find them as we progress, as we write, as we explore. Those limits come from us, and only ourselves. Those limits are only true if discovered in discourse between our inner selves and our creative drive.
Anything coming from outside – other writers, teachers, baristas – those are manufactured limits. Certainly you can agree to cooperate with them. I for one wholeheartedly agree with the social process that establishes traffic safety. But they are not within me, and they do not define my capabilities or yours.