The Defining Feature of Language
Language is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. And one of the defining features of language is restriction. The English alphabet restricts us to 26 letters.
Bounded by these 26 letters, we can write an unlimited number of books, screenplays, poems, scientific theories, computer code, and on and on and on. All created by rearranging the same 26 letters of our restricted alphabet. And so that’s the theme of this week’s SIX at 6: the virtue of restrictions and constraints.
Content Dictates Form
When asked, Lin-Manuel Miranda says Wait For It is one of the best songs he’s ever written. “Stephen Sondheim has these maxims that he goes by in terms of writing,” Miranda said, “and one of the most important is, ‘content dictates form.’ And Wait For It is the the ideal of content dictating form.” The idea for Wait For It came to Miranda after he learned that Aaron Burr’s wife Theodosia was married when they first met…to a guy fighting for the British. “And Aaron Burr basically waited for that dude to die or fall out of the picture.” So in Wait For It, “everything about Burr is not only in the lyrics of the song but in the melody. That was exciting. Especially when I got to the bridge and was just like, ‘Oh, this doesn’t sound like anything Hamilton would do. Hamilton wouldn’t wait for fucking anything.’ It just sounded really character specific.” Confined by the character traits of Aaron Burr, Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote, he believes, the best song he’s ever written.
Narrow It Down. Narrow It Down. Narrow It Down
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a young girl is assigned to write a five-hundred-word essay about any topic. She chose to write about the United States. Her teacher—the book’s protagonist, the wise Phaedrus—suggested she narrow it down to Bozeman, Montana. When the due date arrived, she didn’t have a single word written. “She just couldn’t think of anything to say,” the narrator says. “Not a spark of creativity in her anywhere.” Phaedrus gave her an extension. But this time, Phaedrus said, “Narrow it down to the main street of Bozeman.” Again, when the due date came, she had nothing. “Narrow it down,” Phaedrus said, “to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick.” She went to the hamburger stand across the street from the Opera House. She started writing about the upper left-hand brick and then the brick next to it and the one next to that. “It all started to come and I couldn’t stop,” she told Phaedrus the next day when she handed in a five-thousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the Main Street in Bozeman, Montana.
Confine The Puppy Brain
“You’ve got to treat your brain like a dog you just got,” Jerry Seinfeld says. “The mind is infinite in wisdom. The brain is a stupid dog that is easily trained.” The puppy brain is easy to master, he says. “You just have to confine it.” For example, Seinfeld writes every day. There are two keys to his writing sessions. First, he limits his options. “My writing technique is just: You can’t do anything else. You don’t have to write, but you can’t do anything else.” When those are your only options, he said, you write just to keep from being bored. And second, he predetermines the stopping point. When he sits down to write, he knows exactly when he’s going to stop writing. Most people sit down to work with an open-ended block of time. “That’s a ridiculous torture to put on a human being’s head,” Seinfeld said. “It’s like if you hire a trainer to get in shape, and you ask, ‘How long is the session?’ And he says, ‘It’s open-ended.’ Forget it. I’m not doing it.” The puppy brain needs rewards, Seinfeld says. “And the reward is: the alarm goes off, and you’re done.”
Commit To A Frame
The experimental electronic music duo Matmos starts every album with a “a commitment to a frame,” a boundary inside which the sounds can only come. Their album, “Ultimate Care II,” for instance, is made entirely from the sounds of the Whirlpool Ultimate Care II washing machine in their basement. They said they get asked a lot, why make it so much harder on yourselves? Why force these restrictions and limitations on yourselves? “What they don’t see is it’s incredibly freeing to be restricted,” Matmos says. “It makes it much easier. We don’t have to work with anything and everything. We only have to work with things that are bounded by these silly ideas…Sorry, theses ingenious concepts.”
Complete Freedom Is A Nightmare
The psychologist William James said, “There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.” Ryan Holiday writes in Stillness is the Key, “the greats know that complete freedom is a nightmare.” When you can do everything you don’t do anything. Narrow it down. Confine the puppy brain. Commit to a frame. Restrictions and constraints paradoxically set you free.