By Mark E. Smith
When I attended San Francisco State University’s creative writing program, we were allowed to focus on the genre of our choice. My peers mostly focused on poetry, fiction or full-length feature writing. I was the only one in my class, however, who focused almost exclusively on the short-short story, a genre others found too difficult because of its inherent limitations. Whether writing autobiography or fiction, I loved the constraint of having to tell a story – convey a profound message – in 1,000 words or less (that’s no more than two typed pages). The constraints of the short-short form, I found, made me maximize what I had, it made me more creative because I had to learn ways to do more with less.
Of course, looking back, I simply grabbed onto what I knew based on growing up with disability – that is, I was really good at taking limitations and using them to utmost potentials. Constraints, you see, don’t box us in; rather, they challenge us to find innovative solutions to work with what we have. I’ve never found that ease or excess bring out our full potential. However, constraints and limitations do. I know that it sounds counter-intuitive, but if you want to grow, work within limitations.
The way I learned really quickly how to manage money was by being broke. Again, I know that sounds counter-intuitive – how do you manage money that you don’t have? – but what being broke is really about is expertly managing the money that you do have. It goes right back to disability experience, doesn’t it? I focus on what I have, not what I lack.
I was grocery shopping with my daughter recently and we encountered a sort of mirror image of us at the grocery store – a presumed single father and two daughters. In his hand, he had a grocery list and a calculator, adding up the cost of items as he went. It was a familiar sight because I’ve done that. When you have financial constraints, you find ways to do more with less. In that moment, that gentleman was a financial wizard compared to many with far more money because each of his dollars was wisely watched and allocated. Attentiveness and creativity filled his cart beyond financial limitations. Again, limitations bring out the best in us.
One of the greatest blues songs of all time is the mid 20th-century, “Grinnin’ in Your Face,” by Son House. In conceiving and performing the song, House had the ultimate constraints: no instruments and no formal musical training. How do you make an iconic song with none of that? Yet, by working around those constraints, he created a soul-penetrating song using just his voice and clapping, setting time to what sounded great to him. House found the ultimate instrument within the ultimate limitation: he used his voice and hands. Contemporary musician, Jack White, noted about House’s classic piece, “I didn’t know you could do that, just singing and clapping. It said everything about rock ‘n’ roll, expression, creativity, art – one man against the world.”
If we look at ourselves as writers, single parents, musicians, those with disabilities, and on and on, it’s amazing what we can do within constraints grinnin’ in our face. What’s fascinating is that constraints don’t limit us; rather, they inspire creativity, help us find better ways, and ultimately foster personal growth. However, what living with limitations truly does is empower us to realize that we don’t have limitations after all.