Limits vs. tolerance: knowing the former and cultivating the latter


I'm perpetually about five steps behind the smart kids like Merlin and Julien, so I'm just now reading Twyla Tharp's absolutely outstanding, OUTSTANDING, I tell you, book, The Creative Habit.* (Julien, if you're reading this, you were 100% right, and I owe you a beer. Or something.)

Since Merlin first started talking about the book some time ago, I've noticed a term creep into his writing more often: tolerance.** As in, tolerance for ambiguity when it comes to approaching the making of stuff, and tolerance for sucking during the process of making it.

Possibly in turn, or possibly because it's part of the zeitgeist I'm soaking in, I've noticed the term floating up into my own consciousness a lot lately. I've worked steadily at cultivating my own tolerance for ambiguity and for sucking, as well; I lump them together as tolerance for "mess," which I've built up a much, much higher tolerance for both physically and psychically.

Interestingly, my tolerance for clutter has decreased as my tolerance for mess has increased. On the surface, you might see them as the same, but I see them as quite distinct:

Mess is the inevitable by-product of creation, the few eggs you're going to have to break to make an omelet (or the few thousand you're going to have to break to make one expertly). Mess is the artist's studio during work hours, or the writer's office halfway through a book, or any creative person's brain at the beginning of a huge, and always scary, undertaking.

Clutter is the crap that gets in the way of creation, the weeds and distractions that keep you from the business at hand. It can can be thoughts that no longer serve as well as tools that are broken or outdated. It's the fat and the noise and the junk that stands between you and your goal: if you're an actor or a dancer, it might be literal body fat; if you're a singer or a speaker, it could be a weak diaphragm or shit habits that are destroying your pipes. It is almost always TV, for everyone, but it can also be any number of bad consumptive habits, from too many beers after "work"-work (getting in the way of your artistic work) to excessive reliance on gossip rags, chick lit or internet forums.

For some of us, clutter is simply too many things we've said "yes" to that we don't really want to do, or that aren't moving us forward in significant ways. I have become much closer to my little friends, No Fucking Way and Not a Snowball's Chance in Hell, although I have to constantly remind them to use their indoor voice and smile politely when out and about in the world. My new-favorite dish is the "no" sandwich: slipping a big, bad slice of Wild Horses Couldn't Drag Me There between two pretty slices of "Oh, aren't you sweet to ask!" or "That Sounds Like So Much Fun" or "I Reeeeeeeally Wish I Could." The point ain't to stomp on someone else's delicate mess with your big clodhoppers, but to recognize what works for them may not for you, and vice versa.

I get a little panicky about how much time I have left to get the music out of me every year about now. And yeah, I realize that worry is a form of clutter, too. Still, addressing what's standing between me and what I've decided I want becomes more and more important as I creep inevitably toward what I hope is a natural and long-off death, but which I recognize could be lying just steps away, up on the fire escape, Acme anvil in hand, waiting for me to turn the corner.

So I say "no", or at least, "let me sleep on it", to more things, that I may say "yes" to the right things. Creating limits, so there's a safe space to cultivate tolerance...


Image by "T" altered art via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.

*I'll be reviewing it next week, but feel free to buy it now, even without the review. Because the first 100 pages are better than most of the pages of about 2,000,000 books put together. It's just the best book I've read for working creatives ever. Juicy, full of ideas and inspiration and exercises. Funny. Well-written. No fat. Blowing-my-mind good.

**You can read the central post about it, which also links to a really nice talk he gave at this year's MaxFunCon on dealing with The Resistor during the creative process.