the positive side of limits

I saw this piece in the New York Times about how it’s not always a good thing that some television shows now have fewer limitations in terms of length: “Forget Too Much TV. It’s Too Big TV We Should Worry About.

Then I saw this in the New Yorker: “Sex and Sexier:The Hays Code wasn’t all bad.” The Hays Code’s attempt to remove actual sex (or anything resembling it) from movies resulted, pretty directly, in the golden age of movie dialogue. (Some of this can also be seen in the movie The Celluloid Closet, by the way.)

Restrictions can be annoying (or, sometimes, much worse), but they can also spur creativity. As I wrote a while ago (talking about how I could never write short stories until I started writing mysteries):

I saw an interview with Pete Townshend once, and he was asked whether it was difficult to write rock and roll songs, since the style is so tightly defined (rhythm, chords, melodies, verse & chorus and maybe a bridge, possible lead break, lyrics of a certain kind, etc.) and he said that it was the opposite. The restrictions made it possible. To paraphrase from memory: “If you put somebody in a room and say, ‘Make music!’ he or she will likely freeze up. There are too many options. But if you say it has to be three or four chords, a verse and a chorus, two to three minutes, and so on, then something can start to happen.”

For another exampole, one of the recurring elements in the films of Orson Welles was the tremendously creative solutions he came up with when he had no money, or when he thought he had money which then vanished at the exact worst time.

Now, these are obviously different things (commercial restrictions, censorship, genre restrictions), but I think they prove the general point, and this is probably related to the focusing effect of deadlines, as I talked about here.

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3 Responses to the positive side of limits

  1. Maggie says:

    Too many choices cause paralysis… like the “choosing what to watch on Netflix” phenomenon. There are way too many choices, so in the end, you choose to do something completely different, because you’d spend half your evening deciding on a movie anyway.

  2. SB Roberts says:

    As a teacher, I’ve learned about the importance of restrictions/limitations/boundaries the hard way. When a writing assignment is about something specific (choose a historical figure), they tend to come up with a topic far easier than when they can write about anything (like a short story). While some blossom when there’s no restriction, others completely freeze up. Good reason to always have some suggestions to go along with it. 🙂

  3. Maggie: Good point. Too many choices can lead to paralysis for both artist and audience. I have a lot of audio files on my phone, but mostly I listen to the same few things, because it’s easier.

    Bryna: I saw that in the writing classes I took in college, too. In general, most people learn more if you give them all the same restrictions and see what they do within them. And, frankly, for the few who will become pros, some will end up writing the Great American Novel, but some will write for TV or movies — and you have to know how to work within limitations for that.

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