The Freedom of Limitation

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Two nights ago, I watched Avatar for the first time. Yes, I’m very late to the party, and there’s a reason for that: I’m not a fan of science fiction, but I’ve never been able to pinpoint the reason for the aversion.

While watching Avatar, though, it hit me. The story is not awful, and the movie is entertaining, if quite predictable. What was unsettling was the lack of any ties to reality. In creating a universe so lacking in similarity to our own, there was no sense of realism, no familiarity. I’ve always found the fascination with exploring things outside the realm of possibility to be odd when our own reality remains so largely unknown. There’s so much to explore right in front of our noses.

The following morning I happened into a wonderful piece on ‘bottle writing’ in which the author describes the phenomenon of bottle episodes in television series. Bottle episodes are those in which the budget is severely limited, because a large portion of the show’s budget was spent on a previous episode. Bottle episodes are an attempt to balance the show’s budget by spending very little on locale, special effects, etc. In a bottle episode, all that remains is the ingenuity of the writer:

The thing is though, those ‘bottle episodes’ (where people are trapped in conveniently low-budget settings) are often considered the best written episodes. Why?

The first thing that is apparent is that bottle episodes are very restricted in what you can do. But rather than limit the writer, this pushes writers to come up with unusual ways to keep things interesting.

The bottle episode is one in which very severe limits are given, and often, the ingenuity that springs forth is precisely because of those limits.

Our reality is nothing if not limiting. We’re governed by the laws of physics, by societal standards, by geography, by our very minds. True creativity emerges from within the context of these limits. Science fiction simply eliminates any limitations, allowing for a new set of rules to be applied. If a creator of sci-fi needs a specific plot mechanism to make sense, he simply changes the rules to accommodate the plot. It is a much more ingenious mind that must bend his art to within the limits of an already established set of rules.

Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.

~ GK Chesterton

In the same vein, true accomplishment emerges from within the limits set by your reality. If you dream of running a business, you cannot simply will yourself to possess all the attributes necessary to make your endeavor a successful one. You may have the necessary business skills, but lack any marketing acumen. How much greater, then, is the success when this limitation must be overcome? Limits, when viewed in the proper light, are not restrictive; they are a source of liberation.

Maybe you’re a writer who’s become quite adept at a certain style of writing. You would like to venture into the world of comedy writing, say. Were this a sci-fi or fantasy story, perhaps a concoction could be made by which you would simply swallow the necessary ingredients to transform you into a comedic gem. In reality, though, you must simply work your ass off.

In the end, it is the limitations imposed that force us to create amazing things- be it a story, a business, a design, or a life. Learning to bend your creations to exist within reality is true creativity. Simply erasing the limits that stand in your way is best left to the realm of science fiction.