Limiting Exercises

June 28, 2009 at 3:25 pm (Art, Asperger's Syndrome, Book review, Farming, God, Gorgeous Writing, Lectio, Writing)

I am still basking in the afterglow of the Colgate Writers’ Conference, which I attended this past week. I had the great privilege of being in a novel workshop led by Brian Hall, whose intelligence, generosity, humor, insight, and talent cannot be exaggerated. I read his novel The Saskiad last month, and his novels Fall of Frost and I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company are now on the top of my teetering pile of summer reading. I will also be adding his book Madeleine’s World: A Biography of a Three-Year-Old to my Education Professions curriculum next year.

saskiadfrost lewismadeleienIn addition to the intensive workshop, I also attended the Craft Talks by other incredibly talented and generous writers: Jennifer Brice, Jennifer Vanderbes (my workshop instructor two years ago – You must read her novel Easter Island), Peter Balakian, J. Robert Lennon, and Patrick O’Keeffe. Their craft talks will be available on the Colgate Writers’ Conference website this summer. Past years’ talks by many of these same writers are already there and are a rare and invigorating treat.

My fellow workshop attendees were also a treat and shared their incredible talents as we workshopped their novels- and memoirs-in-progress. Two of our original group of five were unable to attend, and so we had Thursday and Friday mornings to do with as we chose. On Thursday we did an exercise, which I will describe in a moment, and on Friday two of us workshopped other chunks of manuscripts-in-progress.

As always when talking or hearing about the writing process, I was struck several times by the idea of writing as metaphor for life. Perhaps everything is metaphor for life, or perhaps, as the Kabbalists believe, all physical phenomena are essentially divine energy diffused into an infinite myriad of manifestations. Or maybe, as I am starting to believe, everything is a fractal, everything, if looked at in closer and closer magnification, is seen to be made up of smaller and smaller versions of itself.

One writing technique that was discussed in particular gave me plenty to think about in terms of both writing and life as I know it. This was the idea of the Limiting Exercise.

I encountered this idea during college in another wonderful Nathan Margalit class called Methods and Materials. One assignment we were given was to take a famous painting and spend … a week? two weeks? (I don’t remember) doing nothing but art based on that work. I chose Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and created 15 variations, each more surprising to me than the last.

Later, in my teaching life, I was attempting to have my tenth-graders write poetry, and realized that given no parameters, the choices were too endless and my non-poet students were, for the most part, writing schlock. Remembering my Art background, I pulled out my prints of Monet’s haystack series and explained to my students that I was going to give them a similar limitation to force their creativity.

hay1hay2 hay4 hay3 hay5hay6

I assigned a sestina, a very restrictive seven-stanza poetic form, invented in the 12th century and still used today by poets. I discovered this form in college when I read The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, whose Sestina is one of the most-often anthologized examples of the form. The summer after my friends and I finished college, we all spent the summer writing these while house-sitting in the Montague hills (ah, English majors).

This form restricts the poet to only six end words, rearranged over the course of seven stanzas in a very specific order. As soon as I restricted my students in this way, they began writing much more powerful and beautiful stuff. My sister ended up doing dissertation research for her PhD in Cognitive Psychology on using examples to teach writing by “teaching” the sestina in my tenth-grade classes.

As we discussed in our Colgate workshop, it is common practice for writers to set themselves certain restrictions any time they write: point of view, for example. Do I choose first person or third person? If third person, then omniscient or limited or polyvalent? (a new word to me this week) Once the choice is made, that to a large extent imposes restrictions on the text.

However, for the exercise we did, Brian imposed a VERY limiting rule, so limiting that all of us in the workshop were paralyzed for a few moments, and as we worked you could hear grunts and growls of exasperation as we found ourselves roadblocked every other word: we were to write about a funeral without using the letter “e.” Here is what I came up with – without the help of a thesaurus!

On my way down stairs grimy with dirt, I stop and try my ducts for salt, for liquid, for signs that what awaits within will call from my past’s dim rooms any salt or sting. Finding only “dry” and “blank” in locations from which any squall or storm might tug, I walk toward a door I would turn from if I could, but approach anyway, finding it pulls my body through.

Within, a hush of lights and aromas surround that I most avoid. Aunts and trailing husbands, boys and girls, dumb with discomfort, old grandma sitting on a dais at a lost captain’s prow, surround a box I avoid at all costs.

I hug my mom, my dad. I slowly wind a circuitous path through bumbling cousins who touch or murmur what might sound sad but actually roars, low and ominous.

Shalimar and Coty’s L’aimant swirl in battling soft clouds. Mascara, lipstick, suits long hung in musty bags, skirts and shirts in vibrant colors stab at trying on “valor” or “joy” or any mood that adds a coat of familial gloss to what lurks in sharp looks or harsh coughs or pointing hands that sign out a grim truth.

I finally draw up to that obligatory black coffin and scan that craggy chin and high brow, cold now to my touch as always it was in mood glaring my way.

When I read it back, I realized that most of what I wrote I would NEVER have normally written. My ideas had to come out through some others space, like Play-Doh coming out the sides when the sliding shape-maker of the Fun Factory is plugged up.


On Friday morning, J. Robert Lennon shared in his public Craft Talk a number of limiting exercises as well as examples of what he had written when he had given himself these exercises. Check these out on his website: The Cat Text had me crying with laughter as did his New Sentences for the Testing of Typewriters as did his disquisition on the website I Can Has Cheezburger? which is a big favorite in our household. The image to the left was my son’s desktop picture for months. The writing parallel comes from being forced to use kitten grammar, ala lolcats speech.

In our workshop right afterward, we workshopped my essay Ah-Ha! Moment: The “Diagnosis”. In addition to some very helpful writing feedback, I also got, as I often do in regard to living with Asperger’s, “How do you do it?” “How can you live with this?” and “Doesn’t this sometimes just drive you crazy?” On a bad day, my answers to these questions would be “Not with much grace” and “Some days it’s really hard” and “Yes.”

Later in the day these two things overlapped in my head and I thought to myself, Marriage to an Aspergian: The Ultimate Limiting Exercise, which of course could also be the subtitle for Life as a Dairy Farmer.

Sure, Asperger’s imposes certain limitations, but doesn’t every marriage? Marry a PhD in History and you are probably fated to moving from university to university waiting for tenure. Marry a lumberjack and you will be living near forests. Marry someone with diabetes and you will be monitoring blood sugar.

Look what often happens when people HAVE no limitations: celebrity athletes worth millions go broke or commit crimes, kids who inherit enormous trust funds become alcoholics or addicts, Brad runs off with Angelina when obviously Jennifer was his soul mate (please don’t think that last was anything but ironic). Limitless money, limitless fawning men or women: people usually do not handle that situation well.

Benedictines often talk about the value of their vow of stability. Thomas Merton flopped around like a crazed dilettante until he committed himself to the most restrictive monastic order there is: the Cistercians. They do not leave the monastery and they do not speak. But look at what came out of him then. Perhaps Flannery O’Connor’s lupus forced her creative hand. Dorothy Day chose poverty, and her very life became her creation.

The Taoists have a saying that I frequently fall back on: One disease, long life. No disease, short life.

Having some sort of restriction forces us to act wisely within that restriction’s confines and to care for ourselves or our marriage or our art in purposeful, thoughtful ways. No restrictions allows us to live in perhaps too daring a way, putting ourselves in dangerous situations. Think of children: in the absence of restrictions they will touch hot stoves, jump into deep water, wander into traffic. Our son, as he has gotten older and we have allowed him a longer leash, has often run gratefully back into the fold when we have snagged him from some dangerous social precipice, at least until he hankers for another foray toward adulthood.

Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs

My theory on this from a scientific standpoint is that our genetic code is hardwired for limitations because that is one of the natural laws: an ecosystem will expand and diversify until some limiting factor stops it at the system’s carrying capacity. There is only so much available to the system. As Jane Jacobs so brilliantly pointed out in her book The Nature of Economies, our human economies MUST function under the same laws because they ARE regulated by the same laws. Our economy is a fractal made up of the ecologies on which it is based.

All living beings are forced to survive in conditions of scarcity. Plants and animals do this by instinct or by trial-and-error or stimulus-response: Fly south — NOW. No food here → migrate. Not enough nitrogen → stop growing vegetatively.

We humans employ rational choice in a condition of scarcity. There is NOT an infinite amount of money or time or physical resources. You assess what you have, weigh the costs and benefits of each option, and choose accordingly. In the same way, we weigh potential spouses, look at the costs and benefits of each potential mate, and make our choice. (Can you tell the Asperger’s has rubbed off on me a bit? Read John Elder Robison’s memoir Look Me in the Eye for an Aspergian take on mate selection.)

Because we are rational, speaking beings, we have developed rituals that make public some of these rational choices. Marriage is one of the most significant limiting exercises we perform. That’s what the vows are all about: “forsaking all others, cleave thee only unto him as long as you both shall live.” That is a pretty serious limiting exercise right there, like writing using ONLY the vowel “e.”

gnwbSure, Asperger’s imposes more restrictions than the normal marriage, and so does dairy farming. Wendell Berry talks about this in his essay “A Few Words for Motherhood.” As he helps a cow give birth, he thinks of Thoreau’s farmer-bashing words from Walden (which raise my hackles, too) and says  that we all commit to something, even if it is to the idea of having NO commitments.  Wendell Berry chose farm animals.

I chose Andy, and Asperger’s came with the package. I could get all frustrated and kick and scream or leave, or I can accept the limitation and use it as an exercise in marital creativity.

If you are an artist or a writer, when you impose a restriction on yourself, the creativity gets squeezed out in other unexpected ways. Brian encouraged us to “look for unpredictable elegant opportunities” that happen in writing when we don’t dictatorially impose our own will on the text, that these often lead the text in a new direction that is BETTER than the original plan.

I choose to see my marriage that way. The Asperger’s has been a “restriction” that forced the writing of my own life into a very different direction. Perhaps the creativity this requires of me will make of my life something more creative, and maybe more beautiful, than what it might have been without that restriction.

This is what I love about reading good literary fiction: you can tell when the writers have allowed the texts to force their hand in a way, and have followed and shaped those sometimes unplanned restrictions into art. For my own tastes, I love when a writer or artist has made beauty out of real and sometimes difficult limitations. This is art that, because it is true, always rings true.

Please share your thoughts …..


  1. Mary Lou said,

    Maureen, this is a very thoughtful post. I was checking here to see your feedback on the Colgate session, and here you came up with a piece that makes me think about my own choices and limitations.

    I need to process this for a bit, but as usual, you are amazing. Keep writing, keep blogging. You never fail to engage me.

  2. Kathleen said,

    Glad the conference offered lots of fertile ground and good seed.

    I mentioned the haystacks (and imagined the variations of Vermeer’s Young Woman that hang over your stairs) when responding to your last video!

    While ruminating on marriage as a “limiting exercise” (of the positive kind), I was reminded of a quote I heard somewhere. “One of the best ways to truly and fully grow up is to remain married to the same person for the rest of one’s life.” Such an exercise is a spiritual one, affording opportunities to engage with self through the other. When mediated by God, this can be deeply productive.

    (Of course, remaining married is not always the healthiest path for all of us. God can mediate that decision as well.)

    On a lighter note, Top Chef uses the limiting opportunity. Today… you will create a full course meal using (imagine music and lights) – “the Japanese pumpkin – kabocha.”

    Your writing about life and Apergers and Andrea writing about life with autism (Autism Unplugged blog) are clear examples of the ways all of us benefit when you as writers seize the opportunities in this kind of “limiting exercise.”

  3. brendaquinkydink said,

    First…I want to see what you could write with no ‘e’!!?
    And second…introducing creativity to marriage via it’s restriction just NEVER occurred to me…thank you so much..and that has also been my problem with my garage based art…once again I have to say how much I admire you and I am going to use that creativity to help thru a little rough patch.
    You’re just what I needed….see? The Universe Provides!
    LOL, BQD

  4. Liz in Virginia said,

    OK, so the stuff about marriage and limitation needs to percolate a little more for me before I respond — clanging resonance bells in my head again, thank you very much — but meanwhile just kind of quickly: as you talk about the limits of the literary form being somehow freeing — I love the truth of this.

    At my book group one night a few years ago, a friend of one of the members attended, and this woman writes a somewhat successful mystery series. That is not a genre that has ever particularly appealed to me, but she was so great, talking to the writers in the room. One thing she said has stayed with me ever since. She said people pooh-pooh the idea of genre fiction — mysteries, crime procedurals, romances, YA coming-of -age novels, etc. But, she said, these genres have strict form rules that are just as important, “and empowering,” as the form restrictions of a sonnet. She made me think of Dorothy Sayers, who said profound things within the “limitations” of her Peter Wimsey novels, or J.K. Rowling, who has transcended the English boarding school adventure novel so that Harry Potter is another Questing Hero — just as archetypical as the young Arthur or Gilgamesh.

    I may be building a lot on flimsy scaffolding, but …..?

    OK, longer response than I intended — the literary aspect of the post clearly clanged, too! Gosh, I love you, Maureen!

  5. Liz in Virginia said,

    Ooh! Writing without the letter ‘e’! Have you read ELLA MINNOW PEA, by Mark Dunn? Wonderful!

  6. Maureen said,

    I love you, too, Liz!! and you, Mary Lou, and you Brenda QD, and of course you, K. It is so nice to be able to share all these random thoughts that I have and to find people who like to think about them, too.

    Good point about the genre fiction. We talked about that at Colgate quite a bit. The Colgate Conference is very much a literary conference – which is the type of literature I prefer to read and attempt to write.

    However, we all challenged each other about our Cycil Vyse attitudes and we found ourselves constantly qualifying our snarky comments with “Not that there’s anything WRONG with that” or “This is just MY taste.”

    And of course every time I diss a romance novelist or Amish fiction writer it’s just because I’m jealous as all get out that they get to make a living writing and I don’t. And I KNOW I couldn’t write those, not because of attitude but because of lack of skill.

    A similar phenomenon happens in the teaching world against Phys Ed teachers – from English teachers especially. We’ll be pissing and moaning about our grading load and looking with scorn at the “hard job” of teaching Gym and then I’ll remember, there was nothing stopping me from becoming a Phys Ed teacher. I made my own bed, and now I’ve got to lie it.

    I’m going to add my “no-e” thing when I get a moment.

  7. Liz in Virginia said,

    I had a grad school professor of 18th century fiction who could stop that Cecil Vyse attitude (which, of course, we all had, being true students of l-i-t-e-r-a-t-u-r-e) in its tracks by reminding us that Charles Dickens was the Stephen King of his time — and that it just might be true that the comparison is more insulting to King than to Dickens.

  8. thegirlfromtheghetto said,

    Oh, this was such an interesting post Mo. I’m glad to have read it, and thank you for writing it and sharing it with us. I love Kathleen’s (Is that your sister? If so, hi, how are you?) quote: “One of the best ways to truly and fully grow up is to remain married to the same person for the rest of one’s life.” I can totally agree with that. Having only been married three years has been a real learning experience for me. I never thought I could do it, not that I am selfish or some ego-maniac, but to truly survive and enjoy a lifelong marriage that thrives, well, that is some work people. Work, which most people aren’t up for! Yes, I love the whole creativty in a limited manner aspect in all forms of life, even in Top Chef, lol. We all have our limitations, and we have to do thrive and do the best with what we have.

  9. thegirlfromtheghetto said,

    Hi Brenda, by the way! Do you have your own blog? I miss you? Stop by mine if you do.

  10. Sher said,

    Lovelies – I am enthralled at the intelligence and intuition you are all volleying about.

    I was behind this week putting out fires, but look at all this good stuff I get to delve into.

    Absolutely in jive with the challenge enriching creativity and general evolution. I could go on and on – but YES YES YES. I think a blank canvas is much more intimidating than choosing three things to harmonize on that surface. . . etc.

    I am so blessed to have met and know you Maureen – You are thriving and blossoming and it is a miracle to witness.

  11. slupirrelliva said,

    need to check

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