A couple of years after I'd left my secular assimilated lifestyle for an Orthodox Jewish life, I met a woman who'd once been immersed in her life as an artist.
She'd painted and sculpted whatever she felt compelled to create, clothed herself as her spirit moved her, and hung out in Greenwich Village.
There were no boundaries or limitations on how she could express herself.
"Wasn't it difficult to channel your art in a religious way?" I asked her. "I mean, after you were used to painting and sculpting whatever you wanted, wasn't it difficult to limit yourself after you entered the more structured and limiting world of Orthodox Judaism?"
Nodding to herself, her brow wrinkled in thought before she said, "I wouldn't say 'difficult'...."
She paused again, searching for the right words until she finally said, "Yes, it's true that I can't create whatever I want—although in a way I can, because my soul expresses different and better aspects now—but my art became better." She pursed her lips, thinking over what she was saying, then she nodded. "Yeah," she said. "I feel that Orthodox Judaism actually improves your art."
"Really?" I said. After having read books by people who felt confined by Orthodox Judaism, it was startling to hear such a contrasting view. "Having your art conform to Orthodox standards actually improves your art?"
"Yes," she said. "Because without limitations, there is no real creativity."
Now, that really stumped me.
In so many different ways, the secular world always insists that creativity demands total uninhibited freedom.
And throughout my life, I kept seeing that the definition of good art in any field was always how much it pushed past the current boundaries—whether the end product was actually any good or not.
For example, the highly lauded field of "experimental art" or "experimental music" is often merely something that hasn't been done yet.
And at this point, what is left to do is often ugly, disturbing, and in bad taste.
Noting my perplexity, she explained, "If you can just do anything you want, then what's the challenge in that? How can you be truly creative and how can you even begin the cultivation of artistic genius if you just do 'whatever'?"
She told me to imagine a pipe channeling water toward a certain destination.
The very act of channeling the water causes the water to be limited in its direction and its form.
Yet that same "limited" water is much more productive and valuable than if it were just flooding around everywhere with no direction or purpose.
"When you can only create within certain limitations," she continued, "then that forces you to think outside the box and to stretch your mind in ways you never would have before. And doing that increases your creativity and makes your art even better."
Needless to say, she's right.
Many people complain about the formulaic structure of movies today. Many novels resemble each other too, just in different genres. The same characters pop up in different guises, all expressing the same ideas in different voices.
And then yet another boundary is crossed, which seems either exciting or distressing, depending which side of the boundary you stand on. But that eventually becomes copied ad naseam until the next boundary is violated.
Breaking boundaries isn't necessarily creativity.
It takes no innovation to say, "What are the taboos of society and how can I push past them?"
For example, if your society frowns on stealing, it takes no genius to identify that boundary or to break through it. You just go out and steal something.
Likewise, self-indulgent expression takes little creativity or genius. Your emotions merely lead you to chafe against a society that doesn't cater to your individual quirks or tastes. You chafe against it and then you rant against it with mind-numbing slogans and meaningless symbols. Maybe you even express your self-righteous ranting in a book or via some other art in a way that seems fresh at the time, but will seem shallow and melodramatic in another generation or two.
And despite all the hype and self-congratulations of those who indulge themselves this way, there's no real creativity there either.
The above applies to any creative endeavor, which is why we quip, "Necessity is the mother of invention."
Inventors create because something is missing.
Real innovators create because of the limits.
Genuine creativity and genius is born from limitation.
Nowadays, you can produce the final draft of a book faster than ever.
Once upon a time, authors needed to write out their first draft by hand.
Even after the typewriter became a common home appliance, it still wasn’t as forgiving as today’s word processing programs.
So after scripting out thousands of words by hand, authors combed through them, marking changes as they went.
And then authors either wrote out a whole new draft or they wrote out entire sections by hand, incorporating the changes as they went.
And only then did they pound out the draft through a typewriter.
Today, first drafts appear directly onto the computer. Sure, many authors create outlines by hand using good old-fashioned notebooks. But for others, plot-outlining software and even mind-mapping software take the place of the traditional pen or pencil.
In the modern world, many authors struggle to know when to stop revising because a computer allows you to tweak your manuscript without end.
Yet are today’s endlessly tweaked books better than those books of yore that only got 2 or 3 drafts before being submitted?
And is something lost in the process when the handwriting-brain connection is no longer there?
I know that I can’t go back to my elementary school days of writing out novels by hand. Even when I create an outline or a journal entry, my hand get so tired. I certainly couldn’t produce hundreds of handwritten pages.
But still, I wonder if scribbling out a book by hand makes it a better book.
On the hand, it’s comforting to know that you don’t have to revise as much as you are tempted to do. Readers have always enjoyed books without endless tweaking.
At some point, you can free yourself to look at your screen and say what those older authors said while looking at the Courier script on their freshly typed page.
“Well, I invested heart and soul in this. I just hope it’s good enough.”
If you invested heart and soul in it, then it probably is “good enough.”
And sometimes, that “good enough” even turns out to be amazing.
When I was six, I slept in the room I shared with my 4-year-old sister, who slept in the bed against the opposite wall.
One morning, I opened my eyes to a mass of matted tawny hair.
What could it be?
The color and fullness reminded me of a lion’s mane.
I froze and stared at the tawny mass, racking my brains to think if it could be anything other than a lion.
To my increasing fear, I couldn’t think of anything else that possessed such a thick tawniness.
But how could a lion have gotten into my bed?
Very gingerly, I leaned back and sat up, then I carefully leaned forward to see what was on the other side of that tawny mane.
It was the face of my honey-blonde sister!
The relief that came whooshing through me on the heels of the intense fear and tension overwhelmed me and I started yelling, “What are you doing in my bed?! Get out of my bed!”
She woke up, blinking disorientedly. “What are you doing here?” she mumbled.
“I’m supposed to be here!” I said. “This is my bed!”
“No, it’s not,” she said. “This is my bed. You get out.”
The injustice of it all infuriated me. “NO! This is my bed! Look – ” I pointed across the room “– your bed is over there! See?”
Her brow wrinkled in sleepy confusion. She crossed her arms and glared at me.
Then our parents came in to see what all the ruckus was about. When they saw us, they burst out laughing.
I tried to plead my case regarding the terrible scare I had at waking up to find my lion-haired sister in my bed, but they just laughed and explained that she must have sleep-walked in the middle of the night, and that it wasn’t her fault.
“She probably just missed you,” explained my mom.
Alas, I was out for justice. “But I thought she was a lion!” I was almost crying. “Do you know what it’s like to wake up and think that there’s a lion in your bed?!” As far as I was concerned, such a fright must never happen again.
My parents cocked their heads and stared at me with bemused frowns while my sister looked disgruntled.
As all writers know, it’s not easy living with a wildly careening imagination (and I regret the indignation with which I woke my sleep-walking sister), but when that kind of imagination and emotion is channeled properly, it can make for some mighty good storytelling.
In The Way to Becoming Yaelle, Jan’s best friend and protector, Anna, expresses a strong identification with Pinocchio because just as Pinocchio yearned to be a real boy, Anna yearns to be a “real” girl after being numbed by years of abuse and neglect.
But I didn’t invent this idea.
This inspiration came from a very real little girl I once knew.
Shira was two years younger than me and died at the age of nine from a form of diabetes so rare that only 300 other children in the world were diagnosed with it at that time.
As a child, Shira captivated me. She was adorable with round blue eyes and chubby-bunny cheeks, and her very essence seemed different from the other children, evidenced in the way she looked you right in the eye, in the way she strode forward as she walked, and in her whole demeanor.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, Shira’s demeanor came from the mission her disease forced on her at age five:
And not just to live as long as she could, but to live as normally as she could.
Seeing how Shira walked and even ran while attached to a glass tank on wheels, an object almost as tall as Shira herself, awed the extremely shy child that I was. Uncomfortable in my own skin to the point that I hated games – like Duck-Duck-Goose – in which I needed to move while others watched, Shira’s freedom of movement while attached to a real impediment fascinated me and I was secretly in awe of her. In a way – and I know it sounds odd – I even envied her for her dignity and normality in the face of indignity and abnormality. After all, I couldn’t achieve those desired qualities – and I wasn’t even attached to a cumbersome machine!
I yearned to be friends with Shira, but I didn’t know how. Sometimes Shira would greet me and I would clam up. The friendly way she looked right into my eyes with that strange machine rolling behind her froze me into silence. Later, I cringed upon remembering how I would just stare back at her, aching to talk but not finding my voice. Shira would raise her eyebrows, shrug her shoulders and keep on going, that odd machine bumping along the pebbly floor behind her.
Once, Shira even asked me, "Can you talk?"
I think I nodded yes.
Shira tried to engage me in conversation, realized it was futile, and went on her way. But I never felt judged by her, like I did with a lot of other people, both children and adults. And she had more right to be offended than anyone else. Later, I realized that Shira was used to disabilities. She had her own and, spending so much of her life in the hospital, she realized that a lot of people had their limitations, some odder than others. She understood that it was nothing personal. And she understood that some people didn’t know how to deal with a little girl connected to this queer thing on wheels. I could have asked her and she would have explained it to me in a way I could understand and feel comfortable, and we could have been friends.
But I didn’t know how to overcome my shyness – especially with Shira.
Then she died.
I felt awful. I cried a lot. It was the first time I’d dealt with death and even more disturbing, the death of a girl not much younger than me. I hadn’t known she was that ill. And I felt terrible that I had basically – albeit helplessly – snubbed a little girl who’d been dying. And I regretted the missed opportunity to be friends with someone truly special, someone who could have taught me about the genuinely important things in life.
I was sure that if I had known she would die, I would have found the courage to speak to her.
Later, I found out just how heroic and special Shira really was – and how creative and spunky. Just like one can take stale old cake and turn it into scrumptious English trifle, Shira once dressed herself up as C3-PO and costumed her insulin machine as R2-D2.
(It was the Eighties and everyone had a Star Wars obsession at some point.)
Then a friend of mine showed me a book with a dedication inscribed by Shira’s mother and given to my friend’s family after Shira had died. It was the tale of Pinocchio – "because just like Pinocchio always wanted to be a real boy, Shira always wanted to be a real girl."
Her mother's words touched me deeply and I never forgot them.
I didn’t know that Shira – with all her sense of purpose and dignity – had felt like she wasn't really "real."
And I think we can all understand why Shira, who was often attached to machines and lived with the knowledge that she’d probably never grow up like all the other little girls, felt like she wasn’t a "real" girl.
But as young as I was, I also understood that Shira was more real, more authentic, and more accomplished in her nine years than many of us are over a lifetime.