Fences Make Good Fiction

As much as I love the alliteration in this title, it applies to all art. Fences, or limits, bring a level of accessibility to your artwork, songs, and stories.

People think that art is just art and you can do whatever you want and call it creative. Technically speaking, they are correct. However, if your creative endeavor is a free-for-all, with no limits or rules, how will your reader or viewer engage with what is going on?

Even artists who seem to jump off the edge of logic have their own self imposed limitations.

Take composer John Cage. His minimalist compositions might seem too sparse and devoid of rules. Yet a look at his “prepared piano” technique shows that Cage, like any other serious artists, created his own style of internal logic.

When he wrote music to accompany dancer Syvilla Fort, he objected to the lack of room on stage for percussion instruments. “I decided that what was wrong was not me but the piano,” he writes in the foreword to Richard Bunger’s Well Prepared Piano.

For Cage, the limitation he imposed was the piano itself. This was the core instrument and anything he could do to it was fair game. In “Sonatas and Interludes” he gave specific instructions as to how the instrument should be prepared. Screws, bolts, rubber and plastic all placed inside the strings. 

Sometimes experimentation creates the rules for the artists. Take a look at one of Jackson Pollock’s “drip” paintings and one thinks, well anyone can do that. Yet attempts to mimic his work often lack the emotional punch of the original. 

Jackson Pollock had a specific mental vision for his paintings and spent hours honing his technique. When scientists attempted to nail down the subtleties of his technique, they found that he intentionally avoided a phenomenon known as coiling instability. 

“Anyone who’s ever poured a viscous fluid — perhaps some honey on toast — has likely seen some coiling instability. When a small amount of a viscous fluid is poured, it tends to stack up like a coil of rope before oozing across the surface.”

Pollock adjusted the height of his brush and the speed of his hand over the canvas, always laid horizontally. Through long hours of experimentation, he perfected his technique and eliminated coiling in the paint. 

When you venture onto your own style of art, think of what you want to limit. Will you work within a constrained space? Do you have a vision for what your final product should look or feel like? Ask lots of “what if” questions. Every small shift in your technique can have enormous ramifications on the final product.

Ultimately, artists are free to create whatever their hearts desire. But laying down your own brand of internal logic, will give your work a cohesive quality. Different pieces created in this vein will hold together as a whole. You’ll allow the reader or viewer to know the limits of your world.

Tim Kane

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