Chuck Close, Alice Munro, & Jack White on Creativity & Constraint

“I can remember very well writing ‘Thanks for the Ride’ because my first baby was lying in the crib beside me…I was twenty-two.”(Photo: Alice Munro by Derek Shapton)

 

The Challenges of Motherhood

Alice Ann Laidlaw was born in the rural town of Wingham, Ontario, the daughter of a fox and mink farmer and a schoolteacher. While writing fiction and studying English at the University of Western Ontario she worked as a tobacco picker, a waitress, and library clerk.

“I had no chance to be anything else

[but a writer] because I had no money,” Alice told The Paris Review many years later. “I knew I would only be at university two years because the scholarships available at that time lasted only two years…I had been in charge of the house at home when I was in my teens, so university was about the only time in my life that I haven’t had to do housework.”

In 1951, she left the university to marry James Munro. Alice Munro‘s daughters Sheila, Catherine, and Jenny were born in 1953, 1955, and 1957 respectively; Catherine died just fifteen hours after her birth.

“I got married right after the second year,” Munro explains. “I was twenty. We went to Vancouver. That was the big thing about getting married—this huge adventure, moving. As far away as we could get and stay in the country. We were only twenty and twenty-two…We were thinking of getting a house and having a baby, and we promptly did these things. I had my first baby at twenty-one.”

“The Day of the Butterfly” (from the collection Dance of the Happy Shades) was one of Munro’s earliest stories. “That was probably written when I was about twenty-one. And I can remember very well writing ‘Thanks for the Ride’ because my first baby was lying in the crib beside me. So I was twenty-two.”

“I was writing desperately all the time I was pregnant because I thought I would never be able to write afterwards. Each pregnancy spurred me to get something big done before the baby was born. Actually I didn’t get anything big done.”

 

“I used to work until maybe one o’clock in the morning and then get up at six,” says writer Alice Munro. “And I remember thinking, You know, maybe I’ll die, this is terrible, I’ll have a heart attack. I was only about thirty-nine or so…” (Photo: Alice Munro in 1979. Image by Reg Innell courtesy the Toronto Star)

 
For almost two decades Munro juggled writing, motherhood, being a wife, and running a business with her husband:

When the kids were little, my time was as soon as they left for school. So I worked very hard in those years. My husband and I owned a bookstore, and even when I was working there, I stayed at home until noon. I was supposed to be doing housework, and I would also do my writing then. Later on, when I wasn’t working everyday in the store, I would write until everybody came home for lunch and then after they went back, probably till about two-thirty, and then I would have a quick cup of coffee and start doing the housework, trying to get it all done before late afternoon.

Before her children attended school, Munro had no choice but to write during her children’s nap time:

Yes. [I wrote] from one to three in the afternoon. I wrote a lot of stuff that wasn’t any good, but I was fairly productive. The year I wrote my second book, Lives of Girls and Women, I was enormously productive. I had four kids because one of the girls’ friends was living with us, and I worked in the store two days a week. I used to work until maybe one o’clock in the morning and then get up at six. And I remember thinking, You know, maybe I’ll die, this is terrible, I’ll have a heart attack. I was only about thirty-nine or so, but I was thinking this; then I thought, Well even if I do, I’ve got that many pages written now. They can see how it’s going to come out. It was a kind of desperate, desperate race. I don’t have that kind of energy now…

I remember the day I started to write…[Lives]. It was in January, a Sunday. I went down to the bookstore, which wasn’t open Sundays, and locked myself in. My husband had said he would get dinner, so I had the afternoon. I remember looking around at all the great literature that was around me and thinking, You fool! What are you doing here? But then I went up to the office and started to write the section called “Princess Ida,” which is about my mother. The material about my mother is my central material in life, and it always comes the most readily to me. If I just relax, that’s what will come up. So, once I started to write that, I was off. Then I made a big mistake. I tried to make it a regular novel, an ordinary sort of childhood adolescence novel. About March I saw it wasn’t working. It didn’t feel right to me, and I thought I would have to abandon it. I was very depressed. Then it came to me that what I had to do was pull it apart and put it in the story form. Then I could handle it. That’s when I learned that I was never going to write a real novel because I could not think that way.

Alice Munro’s first book was published at the age of 36. Today, she’s considered one of the world’s foremost fiction writers. She has published 17 books, publishes regularly in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Atlantic Monthly, and is still writing at the age of 81. Munro has also received the Man Booker Prize, the Edward MacDowell Medal, and is a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize.

Short stories remain her medium of choice, not only for stylistic reasons, but also because it’s the medium that has worked best with Munro’s busy schedule.

 

Limitation & If-Only Syndrome

My grandparents Georgia and Mahlon Houseknecht in the North Georgia Mountains

Munro’s story is a familiar one. My own grandparents lived in the mountains of North Georgia and had eighth-grade educations. My grandmother was one of twelve children growing up on a small farm, where they buried meat in saltboxes and made lard and cracklings in iron pots. They milked cows, canned vegetables for winter, churned butter, and made syrup with a sugar cane mill powered by a donkey. I’m the first person in my family to graduate from a four-year university, after thirteen years attending a Christian fundamentalist school.

But I’m not alone. We all have a story like Alice Munro’s. Each and every one of us is constrained by something…by our upbringing, our education, our busy schedules, our health, our finances, our geography, our skills, our materials, our community, our politics or religion. These physical, social, and intellectual constraints are very, very real. We push up against them every single day, and the experience isn’t always pleasant.

One of the biggest hindrances to doing our best creative work and living a happy life arises from our inability to embrace these obstacles. Too often, we see such limitations as impediments, instead of seeing them as opportunities. We resent them, especially when we compare ourselves to others who appear to have had an easier life.

In this frame of mind, our obstacles become oppressive, undermining our self-worth and eroding our sense of possibility. We develop a mindset of scarcity, allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by If-Only Syndrome:

“If only I had more _________ (time, help, support from my boss, money, the latest technology, training, skill, etc.), then I could finally __________ (insert whatever passion project or life change is most important to you).”

But as I’ve discussed before, these perfect conditions we’re waiting for are never going to happen. These elusive, ideal circumstances are a myth. Things are imperfect now, and they always will be. We will always have limited time, limited skill, limited knowledge, limited money, difficult co-workers and clients, limited physical capacity, etc. Unless we want to be continually blocked and dissatisfied, the only viable option is to make peace with this fact and embrace these constraints and imperfections.

 

Style is a function of your limitations, more than a function of your skills

In order to do our best work, we need to learn to accept the limitations that can’t be changed. We need to find a way to work within these confines instead of constantly battling against them.

I’m not suggesting that we simply accept the status quo. Living a fulfilling, productive life is a collective responsibility, as well as an individual one. Not all people have the tools and resources they need to overcome oppressive circumstances. Creative pursuits and what we blithely refer to as “self-improvement” are luxuries for many people. It’s only fair to acknowledge that some individuals are coping with more “limitation” than they deserve. (This is one of the reasons that education, social policies and services, and community involvement are essential).

Acceptance doesn’t mean that we no longer have goals or no longer attempt to make changes in our communities or personal lives. Acceptance is about letting go of anger and resentment; it’s about making peace with the past and the uncertain future. Such acceptance allows us to stop wishing our lives were different. This frees up time and energy to focus on the present and the people and projects that matter most.

Some important questions…

What stories are you clinging to right now?

What obstacles make you feel most resentful and trapped?

Is it your job? Your finances? Your ailing health? Your relationships? Your family history? Past injustices? Anxieties about the future? Demands on your time?

Make a list. Only by recording these thoughts can you begin to make changes.

 

A street art piece by Banksy

 

Once you have a list, examine it closely…

Do these circumstances really define who you are as a person?

Are they really as bad as they seem?

What items on your list concern the unchangeable past or unforeseeable future?

What obstacles can you let go of entirely?

Which ones can you accept (at least for the time being), and which one need to be changed as soon as possible in the interest of your health and happiness?

 

Now consider your creative assets. Make a list of your talents and skills…

What tasks bring you the most pleasure and satisfaction?

When do you lapse into a flow state with your work (a state that leaves you neither bored or anxious)?

Who and what are you most grateful for?

When do you feel most content?

Our creative work emerges from our limitations combined with these creative assets. Art is a product of doing, a product of constraint combined with skill, vision, and personality. As Johnny Cash once said, “Style is a function of your limitations, more so than a function of your skills.” In other words, constraint is just as important as skill. We need both. It’s this combination that creates a unique style. Johnny Cash’s version of “Personal Jesus” will never sound the same as Depeche Mode’s version, even though the music and words are exactly the same. If you give Chuck Close and John Currin the same tubes of paint, the same canvas, and the same model, and ask them to paint a portrait, the results will look entirely different.

The choice of artistic medium often arises out of constraint, not just from technical experience and skill. The short story format was a natural fit for Alice Munro, just as making art out of twist ties, fruit stickers, and spam email made sense for Rachel Perry Welty, when she was a working mother trying to create art at home during small windows in her busy schedule.

 

“Style is a function of your limitations,” Johnny Cash once said, “more so than a function of your skills.” (Photo: June Carter and Johnny Cash performing at Folsom Prison courtesy Sony BMG)

 

 

If you give Chuck Close and John Currin the same tubes of paint, the same canvas, and the same model, and ask them to paint a portrait, the results will look entirely different.

 

Too Much Opportunity Kills Creativity

But limitations don’t always come in the guise of personal hardships. Some artistic constraints are intentional.

Poet Robert Frost famously said, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” Many poets create artistic limitations for themselves by using a poetic form, such as a sonnet, haiku, villanelletanka, or couplet. Composers do the same when they choose to work with a musical form like a canon, waltz, symphony, mass, sonata or motet.

 

Many poets choose to create artistic limitations for themselves by using a poetic form, such as a sonnet, haiku, villanelle, tanka, or couplet. Composers do the same when they choose to work with a musical form like a canon, waltz, symphony, mass, sonata or motet. (Image courtesy infinityskitchen.com)

 

Jack White understands the benefits of limitation better than any other rock musician I’ve come across. He knows that you don’t need 20 guitars and a huge band to make memorable music. “The whole point of [the duo] the White Stripes is the liberation of limiting yourself,” White told David Fricke at Rolling Stone. “A duo can only make so much music without tapes and samples. I’ve always centered the band around the number three. Everything was vocals, guitar and drums or vocals, piano and drums…I can only play one thing at a time…In my opinion, too much opportunity kills creativity.”

“Too much opportunity kills creativity?” That’s a radical idea. Many of us are more comfortable with the romantic notion of the free, liberated artist, beholden to no one, than we are with the idea of a disciplined, creative clock-puncher deliberately painting himself into a corner.

 

“The whole point of the White Stripes is the liberation of limiting yourself,” Jack White told Rolling Stone. “In my opinion, too much opportunity kills creativity.”

 

 

“I’ve always thought that problem-solving is highly overrated and that problem creation is far more interesting.” -Chuck Close

 

Problem-solving is overrated. Problem creation is far more interesting

No one exemplifies these ideas better than visual artist Chuck Close. The physical and personal obstacles he’s encountered over his lifetime have been numerous. But Close shows us what can be accomplished creatively in spite of and because of constraint.

Chuck Close went through a number of personal trials as a young man, which you’ll see in the below video, but he ended up studying art at Yale, along with Richard Serra and a number of other artists who would go onto to have successful careers.

While in college, he had a teacher who told him that painting was dead, and that the most bankrupt form of painting was representational painting, especially portraiture. Close took that as a challenge and decided to focus his artistic practice on painting portraits. This is the small corner of the art world that he has spent a lifetime exploring.

“I tried to, with a series of self-imposed limitations, back myself into my own personal corner where nobody else’s answers would fit,” says Close. “I’ve always thought that problem-solving is highly overrated and that problem creation is far more interesting.”

As a young man, Close also struggled with dyslexia and face blindness. Painting the faces of his family and close friends helped him cope with these illnesses.

Artist Chuck Close shows us that acceptance is better than resistance, and that we can actually create something remarkable and original, even under the worst and most limiting of conditions. As this video from CBS Sunday Morning shows, Close’s unique style is a byproduct of both his skill, his personal limitations, and his decision to restrict his artistic medium to portraiture.

 

 


 

What are some of the limitations that are holding you back in your creative work? Is there a way to use these obstacles to your creative advantage? How could you use the constraint of time, medium, form, materials, or money in an innovative way? Your thoughts and feedback are welcome in the comments field.

 
 

The Complete Creative

The Complete Creative is a new series of articles, workshops, and talks for artists, designers, students, and creative thinkers. Over the next few months I’ll be covering topics like fear, procrastination, technology, time management, as well as practical subjects like money, social media, deadlines, artist retreats, presenting yourself online, and grant writing. If you want to read the entire series, be sure to sign up for a free email subscription to Gwarlingo. You can also follow Gwarlingo on Twitter and Facebook.

Read Part One and Part Two of The Complete Creative Series. 
 
 

Join the Gwarlingo Community

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Further Exploration

Also, check out the Gwarlingo Store–a handpicked selection of books of interest to writers, artists, teachers, art lovers, and other creative individuals. A portion of all your purchases made through the Gwarlingo Store portal, benefits Gwarlingo.
 


 

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.

18 Comments

  1. Mary Johnson (@_MaryJohnson) November 1, 2012 at 8:19 am

    Let the obstacles become opportunities, impose limitations to foster creativity–I like those ideas. They’ve worked for me. Thanks, Michelle, for reminding me that creativity grows and flourishes in rocky soil.

    • Michelle Aldredge November 1, 2012 at 10:52 pm

      You’re welcome, Mary. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Diane Moser November 1, 2012 at 9:42 am

    Excellent article Michelle, as always!

  3. Margo November 1, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    Michelle, I love this post! I’ll never forget meeting Alice Munro on Medal Day at MacDowell. She is so incredibly inspiring and unpretentious, and seems genuinely surprised by all the fuss and accolades for her work. I remember her saying that she was going to give up writing, but then that morning at MacDowell she had another idea for a story.

    • Michelle Aldredge November 1, 2012 at 5:41 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Margo. There’s no doubt that Alice Munro was one of the most gracious Medal Day recipients in my 13 years at MacDowell. I remember how thrilled you were to meet her in person. Wasn’t there a photo of both of you in the paper? It was such a full circle moment for you to meet her since she had such an impact on you as a young writer.

      I believe it was the Sunday morning of the ceremony when Munro woke up in Hillcrest, the MacDowell’s home. She said she looked out the bedroom window at Mt. Monadnock and suddenly had an idea for a new story. Amazing.

      I hope I can be as prolific and engaged as Munro when I’m in my 80s!

  4. Jeff Shattuck November 1, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    Great post.

    I first heard about the importance of limitations in creating art during a job interview. I was talking with an art director (he was interviewing me) and he said, “Creativity needs boundaries.” I never forgot that and it’s something that, in hindsight, has always proven to be true for me — and still is.

    • Michelle Aldredge November 1, 2012 at 10:54 pm

      Thanks Jeff! I love the idea of creativity needing boundaries. It’s true in so many ways. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  5. Suzi Banks Baum November 1, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    Dear Michelle,
    What a great post for me today.
    All of these thoughts, about constraints and limitations and boundaries all play so deeply in to how I have lived as a full time Mom and artist. I believe that ‘what you resist, persists’ and the best way I have found to answer my natural instinct to create while raising 2 kids, has been to do just that. When my first son was small, I doodle and drew in a notebook I kept in the diaper bag. I wrote every morning early, while my husband took our son out- anywhere out of the house worked for me- before he took off for work. We have together made it 18 years in to our parenting and both of us are working diligently at bringing our dreams to reality. For me, rather than resisting my limitations, I have learned to work within them and have created a wonderful occupation for myself. This series is so rich, Michelle. Thank you! Love, S

    • Michelle Aldredge November 1, 2012 at 11:13 pm

      Thanks Suzi. My hat’s off to both you and Margo Rabb (who commented earlier) for your work as full-time mothers and artists. I don’t know how you pull it off. Alice Munro’s description of writing while running a family, house, and business really spoke to me when I read it. You can just feel how exhausted she was during that period of her life. And yet, she did it, because both motherhood and writing were important to her.

      Are you familiar with the writing of Tillie Olsen? She has a book called Silences that you might be interested in. Olsen’s creative output was very much affected by motherhood. Silences is all about the censorship and self-censorship of creative women. It took her 15 years to write the book, so she knew what she was talking about!

      I like Olsen’s perspective because it’s honest and real; it cuts right to the heart of the social impediments women have faced (and do face) as artists.

      For most of my adult life, it hasn’t been children, but a full-time job that I’ve had to organize my creative life around. My most productive period came when I was able to write routinely for an hour or two each morning before leaving for work. I must confess that it never felt like enough time though (I suffered from acute “if-only syndrome”). In hindsight, I realize that I wasted a lot of energy wishing things were different. (We teach what we need to learn, I suppose).

  6. Anna Dibble November 1, 2012 at 6:13 pm

    Good post. Most of my life the main limitation was lack of money and therefore lack of time because of the need to make a living. I somehow always fit in the work, but it was always erratic. As I’ve grown older – now 62 – I still have to make a living, but I don’t let it get in the way as much – have learned how to work around it – so guess I’m finally working with the limitations in a way. The difficulty now is to be able to let go of the financial concerns enough to ‘let go’ with the work – ie not think about pleasing the art buyer as I work. That’s a battle for me.
    I try to think about Giacometti. He fought what he considered a huge limitation – that he couldn’t ever draw or sculpt the figure he envisioned. I’m reading James Lord’s ‘A Giacometti Portrait’ in which Lord sits for Giacometti – who just cannot get the portrait right. Hours and hours, weeks and weeks of work that he continually erases/destroys over and over and over again. He nver gets it ‘right’, but finally Lord convinces him to stop. This is apparently how Giacometti always worked.
    So I think that the inner ‘limitations’ are the most difficult to learn to work with.

    • Michelle Aldredge November 1, 2012 at 10:50 pm

      Thanks for your comments, Anna. I’m edging my way toward a deeper discussion about money in the weeks and months ahead, so stay tuned!

      I have to agree with you about “inner limitations” being as relevant as the outer ones–obstacles like fear, money worries, etc. I think this is where the idea of acceptance and letting go comes in. As I said in the article, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have goals or try to change things; it simply means “quarantining” these concerns so that they don’t infect your creative life and stop you from working at your deepest, most playful level. When assessing goals or planning, focus only on planning. When creating art, just create art. When working your day job, work your day job. When typing an email to a friend, focus on only the friend and the email.

      Some psychologists even recommend scheduling a time just for worrying. I know that sounds a bit crazy, but the idea is that you push your anxieties and destructive obsessions away until the scheduled time. Then you sit down for ten minutes or so and let all of the worries and anxieties arise. You can write them down, meditate on them, or even follow them through to their “worst case scenario” (which usually isn’t so bad in the end). And when the time for worrying is over, you move onto the next thing, (theoretically) leaving your anxiety behind until the allotted time.

      I realize it’s not always so easy to parse out life in this way, but I love the practicality of this approach. It acknowledges the inevitability of worry, insecurity, and fear, and it honors it by making time for it. Our usual pattern is to allow these “negative” thoughts to arise and then to make matters worse by pushing it away and blaming ourselves. The result is that we feel overwhelmed, tired, and anxious more times than not. (The meditation teacher Tara Brach calls this “shooting the second arrow.” The first arrow is “things are hard.” The second arrow is “it’s my fault. I’m bad.”) It’s this cycle that creates so much of our suffering.

      Acceptance is really about making peace with our situation without punishing ourselves with that second arrow. Let the worry be worry, and nothing more. Acknowledge it and put it in its place, instead of allowing it to infect your art. You deserve a time to enjoy the creative process and be playful without forcing your art to carry the burden of problem-solving.

      There’s much more to say on this subject, but I’ll save it for another post. Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts. You’ve prompted me to examine the subject of limitation more deeply, which has been helpful. I hope other readers will benefit as well.

  7. Maree Dew November 3, 2012 at 12:55 am

    Oh! So much to explore here…

    Chuck Close may be dismissive of ‘inspiration’ but it is difficult to find another word that better suits his impressive approach to both art and life… absolutely fascinating…

    Thank-you, Michelle! 🙂

  8. Jeffrey Gross November 3, 2012 at 1:35 am

    It’s hard to think of a more limited musical form than the twelve-bar blues, yet I don’t think many would disagree that it’s been one of the richest forms of popular music in the last 100 years.

    • Michelle Aldredge November 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm

      Ahh…brilliant, Jeffrey! I hadn’t even thought of the twelve-bar blues. What a fabulous example of constraint. The twelve-bar blues covers everything from James Brown’s “Papas Got a Brand New Bag,” to Muddy Waters, to Bob Dylan’s “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat.” And of course, there’s my all-time favorite, Robert Johnson…

  9. Tyler January 20, 2013 at 1:19 am

    “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and do the work.” Chuck Close

    Just recently I was lamenting to myself about how dreadfully uninspired I’ve felt. Almost immediately after that thought I heard my voice say, “If I wait around for inspiration all I’m left with is the waiting around.”

    Synchronicity and reaffirmation? Works for me.

    Michelle, your amazing site continues to unfold and inspire me. I excitedly and anxiously await new posts, new perspectives, new ideas, new images.

    I cannot thank you enough nor convey how deeply the content of Gwarlingo is helping yo inspire and facilitate a total shift in my personal and creative consiousness and outlook. I’d been waiting for and willing to make an absolute 180 and the moment I opened the home page things literally began to click for me, to come together, to open up, to expand. Images, sentences, paragraphs, ideas I read here – like finding tiny pieces of gold in the dirty street, putting them in my pocket to find that, later, when I take them out they’ve grown larger and more valuable.

    Invaluable resource you are!

  10. Brandy June 23, 2013 at 9:38 am

    Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked
    submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.
    Anyhow, just wanted to say fantastic blog!

  11. Gwarlingo – Postcards from a Prison Teacher September 11, 2013 at 11:59 am

    […] can discuss larger, philosophical issues, including deeper topics surrounding art. “Your Chuck Close/Alice Munro piece actually influenced this idea and will probably be one of our forum readings,” explains Bowen […]

  12. […] written about Alice Munro’s balancing act between motherhood and writing previously, and her circumstances recall the concerns of Virginia Woolf in her famous essay A Room […]

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