Recently Jaclyn Hoselton of The Habit Membership reminded me of something that Flannery O’Connor said:
“The writer can choose what he writes about, but he cannot choose what he is able to make live.”
The artist always has limitations. This is a hard saying. Who can hear it? If it helps, here’s a positive application of the same idea:
Figure out what you are able to make live, and write THAT.
There is no shame in the fact that you are a finite being. You can’t do everything. But you can do something. So here’s an even more positive way of expressing the principle of the artists’s limits:
As you understand the boundaries of your gifts, you begin to understand what you have to offer the world.
Horticulturists talk about the “habit” of a plant. Does it grow into a shrub? A tree? A vine? Does it mound? Does it creep? Does it stand erect? Knowing a plant’s habit is an important first step in knowing how to help that plant develop. You provide poles for your pole beans. You give your bush beans room to bush.
It’s worth considering what your “habit” as an artist is. What modes of expression come naturally to you? What subjects and ideas rattle around in your mind? What do you think about more than most people think about? This isn’t the same thing as asking what kind of art appeals to you. I love Milton’s Paradise Lost, but there would be little point in my trying to write Paradise Lost for the twenty-first century. My writerly “habit” grows in other ways.
In fact, I feel confident in saying that, whoever your favorite writers are, you can’t write like them. And that’s ok, because they can’t write like you either (assuming you’re writing like your truest self). They have their patches of ground to tend, and you have yours.
In another essay, O’Connor wrote, “It is wrong to assume that the writer chooses what he will see and what he will not. What one sees is given by circumstances and by the nature of one’s particular kind of perception.” Again, this idea—that you don’t have complete autonomy over your own vision—is a little jarring for people who can Google up pictures of anything they want to see. But it’s true. Your vision is shaped by your circumstances (a person in Guatemala sees and knows things that a person in Iowa hasn’t seen) and by your particular kind of perception (two next-door neighbors in Iowa see the same things very differently).
These limits to your vision turn out to be the most reliable source of originality. If you only give an account of the world as you’ve seen it, you’re going to be original. The combination of things you’ve seen is unique. And even if it weren’t unique, your perspective on it would be unique.
I often talk about the importance of giving the reader something she can’t get for herself. You do that by staying within your limits. Show me what you’ve seen—what you’ve actually seen, not what you think you ought to have seen, what you wish you had seen, what you think I would want to see, or what I ought to see. If you tell the truth, you’re going to give me something that I couldn’t have gotten for myself.
Let me also add that accepting your limits makes it a little easier for you to leave room for grace. I don’t care how brilliant your are or how hard you work: the best writing comes from some mysterious and supra-personal place beyond the writer’s talent and ability. I work hard at writing, but every good thing I have ever written has felt like an act of grace.
The world—both the visible and the invisible—is a very big place. I can only see so much of it from where I stand. As you bear witness to what you’ve seen from your little patch of ground, you’ve giving me a gift. You’re giving more of this beautiful world than I would otherwise have access to.
To put it another way, when you give an (admittedly limited) account of what you have seen, you are making your reader’s life more abundant. So thank you for that. Keep it up. If the art you’re making is bad, fine. Keep at it. It will get better if you are committed to the work.
For a Christian, to make art is to put into practice those beloved lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
If indeed the world is charged with the grandeur of God, it is an act of faith to bear witness to what we have seen in this world and to trust that meaning will tell itself. The grandeur of God will flame out. We’re just shaking the foil.