Limitations in Art

I’ve always been fond of setting limitations for myself, in a way. When I was in high school, my best friend and I started a “B&W” club and only wore black or white for almost a year (we stopped when we found another pair of girls doing the same thing). I like limitations in writing, too. For my college thesis, I wrote a collection: Each story was mainly about two people, and each was titled with their names. The “novel” I wrote last semester all took place in hotel rooms. The one I’m working on this semester takes place in a mall and an apartment. Sometimes I want it to be only in the mall, but I start to get dizzy thinking about expanding scenes in other stores or the food court. I go to the mall as much as I can, now, and it is one of my least favorite places. At the same time, I love it, because it stifles me.

A fashion designer, Ann Sofie Back once said in an interview, “I’m working with burgundy. I hate burgundy. I’m fairly excited about this.” Perhaps more now than I’ve ever noticed before, designers are creating lines that are a combination of attractive, sexy things and references to the laughable outside world. This is very much inspiring me in writing.

Back’s latest collection was inspired by a Second Life character. Other runway inspirations I’ve read of this season include The Matrix, the first season of Melrose Place, Jamaican dance hall drag queens, and Burning Man. These designers are using cheap, recognizable materials: crushed velvet, fraying denim, sweatpants fabric, faux fur, and t-shirts decorated with body-jewelry. I don’t believe they are making any anti-fashion statements, and most of what I’m listing is actually quite beautiful. Perhaps some shows are saying something about the economy (of course, everything is about that, right?), but mostly, designers, like any artists, need to challenge themselves to make something worthwhile.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this novel, but I’m into the idea that I can at least see all the walls it can bounce off of. Plus, a mall is like walls inside of walls. Even the food court is segmented, and it has railings around the dining area, and you’re not allowed to smoke in certain places outside, even. There are screaming children and slow-moving old people in front of you. It’s almost as confining as a being on a plane.

I’m also interested in the idea of successful storytelling within narratives (like in letters, or orations at parties), because those seem to me like huge limitations on writing. The author is setting himself up to have to tell a story that is more engaging than the one he was setting this one inside of, or else the reader gets anxious for the real action to begin again. And he has to fend off more interruptions, while this is going on, in order to create realism. People at the party ask questions, the character doing the speaking needs a drink, the reader wants to know what she looks like while she talks, and if she can be trusted.

I’d like to write a story about a group of people or a person I truly hate. I want to write from the perspective of a total misogynist, and have him write letters to women, maybe letters to the editor of a publication I hate, and maybe the real action will start within those pages, and I’ll have to limit each step forward to a tiny square of ranting that is despicable, but at the same time eloquent enough to be published in a magazine. Maybe I’ll just assign that exercise to my students, instead.

-Natasha Stagg is a writing teacher and student in Tucson, Arizona.

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