The Attitude of Limitations

I have a question for you.

All through my life, I’ve tried to learn as much as possible about pretty much everything that interests me.  There have been times when I have rejected other things, but at this point in my life I’m willing to learn about anything.  The world interests me in many ways.  I’m willing to try just about anything as well, which might be disastrous if I ever try my hand at flying with telekinesis.  I like trying new things, though I am aware of most of my limits.

Other people have encouraged this.  Some of them have said it to my face, others I have just heard or read about, but many people say to branch out, discover new talents, build new skills, and never be afraid to try something new.  This is the moral of every children’s story I know: impossible is not an acceptable word.  You can do it if you try.

A while ago I listened to a podcast on pigeonholing.  To pigeonhole is to limit something to a particular category or role.  One who has been pigeonholed is trapped; he can’t branch out and try anything new.  As a person, and as a writer especially, I don’t want to be stuck in any position.  The podcasters talked about how to keep from being pigeonholed, and I found it very helpful.  It encouraged me to try new things.  In the next few days, I wrote a lot of things I hadn’t tried before: steampunk, an animal fiction spoof of Agatha Christie, a short story about a door…  I enjoyed that podcast and how much it freed me.

Yesterday, I saw a quote from Albert Einstein:

I agree completely; I just object to the missing period.

The quote is perfectly true.  But the person who posted it added a comment: “Don’t try to write something your unfamiliar with, stick to your strengths.”  I agreed with the quote– I didn’t agree with the comment.

Sticking to your strengths is definitely a good idea if you’re being asked to do something you know you can’t do.  Sticking to your strengths just because they’re your strengths is questionable.  Stick to your strengths– sure, but develop new strengths as well.  What would we be if we stuck to our strengths and did nothing else?  We would be animals, doing what we were born to do and nothing else.  There would be no imagination, no free will, none of the things that make us human.  What strengths are we born with?  We can fuss and we can eat.  Imagine living your whole live that way.  Fussing until food finds its way into your mouth, then eating until it’s gone.  That’s the life!

True, he’s speaking of writing, but the same is still true.  What writing strengths are we born with?  None.  So sticking to our strengths, in this case, is not writing at all.

This guy says that writing something unfamiliar is a bad idea.  He’s implying that you’re sure to fail.  That’s not the attitude I want to have, believe it or not.  That’s not the attitude I’ve been brought up to have.  That’s not the attitude I’ve been led to have.  In the past, I have often made a big stink about the hypocritical definition of normal.  I’ve said that the world tells us to be unique, but condemns us for not being like itself.  I don’t think the world has ever taken that concept this far, however.

Einstein’s quote is still true, of course.  The judgments other people make are often incorrect because of a lack of insight.  But he is not telling the fish never to try to climb a tree– he is telling the onlooker not to judge the fish for failing.  There’s a difference between the two meanings.

Personally, I think the desire to try new things is a good one.  That was the point of yesterday’s post on horror writing; I wanted to try something new.  I don’t think people should be pigeonholed into the mindset of limitations.

So here’s the question: what do you think?  Should we try new things?  Should I write a science fiction version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears?  Or should I stick with what I know and write the first drafts of stereotypical fantasy novels all my life?  What do you think you should do?  Perhaps trying new things is well and good for me, but for you, it’s different.  What do you think?

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79 Comments

  1. Limiting yourself is different from trying new things. I think putting more effort in your strengths will give you greater pleasure than constantly starting over at the bottom off the skill strength. However, you can always discover new strengths and pleasures.

    Reply
    • I believe in simultaneously exercising your strengths and building up new ones at once, so that you’re never at the bottom of the pit for long.

      Reply
  2. Amanda Fischer

     /  January 15, 2013

    YES. That’s what I say. I LOVE LOVE LOVE trying new things, and–wait a second. Oh goodness. I just realized what I was saying. I do love trying new things…but when was the last time I tried doing it with my writing? A loooong time ago. Which means, maybe I need to write something different. Maybe even something where people get killed. 😉

    So…hey, thanks for that. Guess maybe I needed it.

    Reply
  3. magicandwriting583

     /  January 15, 2013

    You know, this is a really good idea. I’ve only ever written fantasy, mostly in novel form, before. Why not short stories, or dabble in another genre? Or both!

    Thanks!

    Reply
  4. I would read a Sci Fi version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears! Definitely try something new, I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly impressed with the results.

    Reply
  5. Fun fact: Pablo Picasso experimented with nearly every type of art form throughout his career. As soon as he got really good at something, he set it aside and tried something different and new. While I think it’s good to find what you’re good at, I think it’s impossible to find what that is without branching out and trying. After all, we all need a challenge from time to time. Excellent post. 🙂

    Reply
  6. Charley R

     /  January 15, 2013

    For me, I’d say there’s a balance. You know your strengths, and you can incoroporate different aspects of what you’re good at into things you’re not so strong on. Then again, if you never have a go at something else, you’ll never be able to develop a new strenght – the whole “practice makes perfect” mantra.

    Fantastic post, and great handling of a complicated issue!

    Reply
  7. I agree with you wholeheartedly. And I love that quote! I LOVE Einstein and I have never heard this quote before. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  8. I guess it makes more sense formulated as “don’t write what you don’t know.” But you can always find out about it and then write! Like, I probably shouldn’t write about quantum computing until I learn a thing or two about it…

    Reply
    • I don’t even try to learn much– I wrote the Christie spoof and I’ve only ever read one book of hers. But I agree– if you’re completely ignorant of it, you ought to research first. But that doesn’t mean don’t try!

      Reply
    • Amanda Fischer

       /  January 16, 2013

      One quote I read in a book about writing said “I disagree with the advice ‘write what you know.’ Write what you need to know, in an effort to understand.” (Donald Windham, by the way)

      I think that is absolutely a genius idea. Writing helps me sort things out all the time. 🙂

      Reply
  9. I’d love to read that spoof of Agatha Christie. 🙂

    Reply
  10. I think that you should most definitely try some new writing things. Sure, you want to write and use your strengths, but how else will you build up your weak points if you don’t exercise them? It’s like looking at your arm and saying, “Man, I sure wish you were as strong as my toe.”, instead of doing some pushups to make it stronger.

    Personally, I’m wary of changing my writing styles. The first time I branched out and tried third person writing as opposed to my normal first person…it was bad. But I just kept plowing through it, making improvements and such, and now, I really like it.

    On the other hand, I’m also wary of trying new things. Sometimes if the new thing is just a little thing (changing the kind of cheese I put on my sandwich), it don’t mind the change. But if it’s drastic, I’m really cautious. But more times than not, the new thing is a really good change for me. I just have to get into the swing of it.

    So. Never be afraid to climb the tree, fish!

    Reply
  11. Emily

     /  January 15, 2013

    Well said. I definitely agree with you. One of the things that drives me the most is the need to acquire as much knowledge as possible, and that requires trying new things, embracing new experiences, and keeping an open mind the whole time. And, yes, probably making myself look incredibly stupid at times along the way. But in many ways, that’s part of the learning process, too. It can be overwhelming to always do new things, but I feel that it’s more than worth it in the end.

    Reply
  12. I very much agree with you. In fact I have a half-written draft (though I’m not sure whether or not it’ll get published) that contains some similar thought.

    I think there maybe a time and a place for using mainly your strengths. I think when you’re doing the real thing, you want to use your strengths, but when you’re practicing, training, learning — you want to try out everything you can. When Katniss was training for the Hunger Games, she practiced with all sorts of things; when she entered the games, she tried to get hold of a bow.

    I think writing a Science-Fiction version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears would be a good thing — to broaden your skills. But when the primary goal ceases to be to practice writing and get better at it — when the primary goal becomes to contribute a great novel to literature — then maybe it would be best to write stereotypical fantasy. But even then, write horror stories in between for your own sake.

    Thanks for the post. Maybe I will write a short story this afternoon — if I finish writing my thoughts on the Hobbit movie. It will be good for me to try something new.

    Reply
  13. I have the impression that the only way that I can learn how to write a science fiction story, or a crime story, or whatever, would be to read them. Then I would need to list all of the conventions and rules of creative writing, plus the conventions and rules of that genre, and follow those conventions and rules religiously until I’d written the prerequisite number of stories and memorised all of those conventions and rules so that they were second nature.

    I’m lazy though, so I don’t follow any of them. Anyway, its creative writing, so too many rules and restrictions would be kind of counter productive instead of acting as a framework in my opinion.

    Reply
    • Yes, restrictions are usually bad, but if you can look at them as “just guidelines, really”, I think you’d be all right. Writing has never been a science.

      Reply
  14. Look, an even earlier comment!

    I actually faintly remember reading this post…

    Also, the image with Einstein’s quote isn’t just missing a period. It’s also missing a comma, and I’m not sure which of the two bugs me more.

    Reply
  1. Don’t Live in a Bubble « An MK's Meandering Mind…

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