February 4, 2019

The Creative Power of Restraint

By Robert Musser, Ph.D.

Restrained drivers are safer drivers.  Restrained passengers will be safer passengers.  In life and in vehicles restraint can work well for our success and our creative impulses.

pictures of flowers through a fenceOn May 24, 1954, Life magazine published an article by John Hersey expressing the views of a committee of parents and educators in Fairfield, CT (1).   The article voiced a perspective that American youth, especially boys, were falling behind in their reading skills.  Among other diagnoses and repairs, Hersey and the committee observed that the prevalent grade school readers about Tom and Betty (more commonly experienced as Dick and Jane) were frankly boooring!  Given the competing visual stimulation of comic books and television, who could blame the youngsters’ lack of interest. Hersey’s article would stimulate the interest of William Spaulding, the director of Houghton Mifflin’s educational division.  Spaulding invited one of his up-and-coming authors to dinner and reportedly repeated several times, “Write me a story that a first grader can’t put down.” The author, Theodor Geisel, struggled for more than a year with the restraint, trying to write an interesting tale limited to 225 words on a first grade reading list.  Alas, he didn’t succeed; The Cat in the Hat used 236 words, but what a beginning. Geisel is better known as Dr. Seuss, and a year or so later he would make an outlandish bet with his publisher, Bennett Cerf. Seuss bet $50 that he could write an interesting story using 50 words or less, words that were on early readers’ vocabulary lists.  Using exactly 50 words, only one of which (“anywhere”) is more than a single syllable, Green Eggs and Ham was finished. As a product of the Dick and Jane readers, I am grateful for the spark in the creative fueled by the restraint. Perhaps the restraints on our time and energy could be food for our own creative endeavors. Who knows what wonderful new directions in medical sciences could emerge.

Online you can find several examples of the six-word memoir, reflection that is also creative restraint. Here are few favorites that can be found at https://www.womenshealthmag.com/life/a19929053/memoir/.

Stephen Colbert, “Well, I thought it was funny.”

Wendy Lee, “Asked to quiet down, spoke louder.”

Janine Goss, “Lived in moment until moment sucked.”

The Haiku, strict poetic structure from Japan, enables rather than hinders evocative imagery, often beautiful, sometimes humorous :

“Winter seclusion
Listening, that evening
To the rain in the mountains”
by Kobayashi Issa.

“A cicada shell
It sang itself
Utterly away”
by Matsuo Busho.

“Over-ripe sushi
The master
Is full of regret”
by Yosa Buson, translated by Robert Hass.

All of these can be found at www.poemhunter.com.

Be creative and succeed. Use the restraints placed upon you.  Pay attention to them; value them. Restrain yourself, and may the world be enriched by your creative output.

1. John Hersey, “Why Do Students Bog down on First R?” Life. May 24, 1954, pp. 136-150.