Creative Limitations

Creative Limitations Pic

Photo Credit: Book, phone, and computer in chains, created and uploaded on 24 January 2015 by stevepb: stevepb/Pixabay/CC0 1.0

“I had to let go … then come back to the [book] understanding the new limitations as creative challenges.” (Tea, par. 4)

I came across an interview with West Coast writer Michelle Tea quite some time ago in, of all places, Psychology Today. Since it’s not exactly typical to find an interview with a fiction writer in a popular psychology magazine, it interested me. I originally planned on addressing Tea’s ideas about the link between addiction and creativity (and I may do that in a future blog post). But as I reread the interview, something else caught my eye.

For her gay dystopian novel Black Wave, Tea explains in the interview the way the book evolved from a memoir to a work of fiction:

“In original form, Black Wave read as a far more traditional memoir. It still contained fantastical elements, but as I played with myself as a character, having Michelle experience some things that were real and some that were fiction, I had done the same with my ex [boyfriend]. He felt way too vulnerable, and … asked that I not.” (par. 2)

As many writers know, it’s one thing to have limitations put upon you as a writer by your own creativity, like my ongoing struggle with my current work-in-progress, The Claustrophobic Heart, where my own fears and anxiety about the volatile relationship between Gena and her mentally ill aunt try to impose limitations on my imagination. It’s even acceptable to many writers to face limitations when writing in their genre (for example, the requirements to include red herrings to mislead readers and keep them guessing in a whodoneit mystery).

But it’s quite another thing when someone other than yourself or your genre sets limitations for your writing even when the intent isn’t controlling or malicious. I can’t help but echo Tea’s sentiments when she says, “I didn’t like the feeling that my creative output was being controlled by my ex, even though it’s very understandable to protest your placement in someone’s memoir” (par. 4). As I explained in my blog post about revising the advice “write what you know”, many writers end up incorporating their own psychological reality, sometimes without even realizing it, in their fiction. When this involves others in an extensive way, it can be like walking a tightrope.

Of course, the task is less of a challenge under certain circumstances. For example, if, in Tea’s case, her ex-boyfriend had let her know at the beginning that he didn’t want to be included in her book, she could have recreated the story based on that knowledge. Similarly, writing about people who are no longer with us makes the tasks less daunting. I have a friend right now whose parents were Holocaust survivors and who is working on a project to bring their story into print. Her book may end up being a combination of memoir and creative nonfiction as well as bits of fiction and even autobiography (with herself as the child of Holocaust survivors). The fact that her parents are deceased makes it less likely she will need to set rigid limitations on what she can do with the information she has on their lives.

For Tea, this unexpected challenge of telling her story was eventually resolved by creating new characters and reorganizing her book:

“I first had to excise the parts of the book that told too much of my ex’s story, then create a new character to share some of the scenarios I wanted to keep with the Michelle character… Basically, the book needed to be restructured, gaps needed to be filled in and I had to think creatively about how to do this in a way that worked for the book…” (par. 4)

While this seems like very simple solutions, they tap into one of the most important aspects of writing – creativity. In other words, Tea turned the limitation on her creativity into new creativity and ultimately ended up with something she was happy with. I think this is the definition of creativity – to transcend boundaries that may be put upon the writer and use the imagination to transcend those limits.

Works Cited

Gore, Ariel, “Black Wave: Alcoholism, Creativity, and Today’s Truth.” Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 1991-2018. 5 September 2016. Web. 7 March 2018.


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