It is impossible to be an artist and not care for laws and limits,” said G. K. Chesterton in his early book Orthodoxy. And then comes the famous line: “Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.”

When I first read this, in my early twenties, I had no idea what Chesterton was talking about. He continued: “If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.”

The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. . . . This is certainly the case with all artistic creation, which is in some ways the most decisive example of pure will. The artist loves his limitations: they constitute the thing he is doing. The painter is glad that the canvas is flat. The sculptor is glad that the clay is colourless.

Then, I hadn’t reflected enough on my own craft to see what he had seen. Now, I get it. A typical heir of popular romanticism, I thought of the artist as a great unstoppable creative force, smashing boundaries and blowing through limitations, bound by nothing but his own will and vision. Also followed by crowds of adoring women and men with notebooks eager to write down whatever he said and saved from the need actually to hold a job.

The Game

Partly thanks to Chesterton, I saw that what gave me pleasure was doing what I had to do within the limits imposed by the medium and the needs of my readers. For me it was a game.

Another aid in seeing this was my work as an editor, and my frequent struggles with writers who felt that had to say exactly this or had to say it in just this way, readers be damned. I could only very rarely get them to see that they were responsible to say what they had to say in this number of words and to that kind of reader. What I saw as a game, they saw as a pointless restriction imposed by some power-mad editor who didn’t understand what they had to do. If we did publish the article close to the way they wanted it, they were surprised that no one read it and took this as evidence they were right.

The extraordinary freedom so many of us possess to choose what we want to do, or at least to pursue for years what we think we want to do, makes the question of vocation more important and also harder to answer. Judging from the requests for advice about writing I get from younger people (or their parents) and from middle-aged people as well, a lot of people can’t decide if they’re really called to do something like writing.

They know they want to do more than whatever they’re doing now, but whether they really want to do it as a life-defining vocation, and work hard enough at it to make a living, or more to the point take the risk that they won’t make a living, they don’t know. (I’m leaving out the person who wants to be a writer because he has an image of the writer that doesn’t include writing.)

Here is one answer: the love of limitations distinguishes the artist and craftsman from the amateur. (“Amateur” is not, by the way, an insult, but a description of the person’s relation to this particular work.) The love of the limitations marks the vocation. Speaking of the work I know, it distinguishes the writer from the one who wants to write and the one who wants to do something that includes writing.

The Challenge

The writer likes the challenge of having a 700-word column to explain a difficult theological concept to the accountant and the biologist and the person who just doesn’t see the point of theology. He likes trying to solve all the problems the work presents: Figuring out how to get the reader to start reading, and what kind of words and sentences to use, finding the best metaphors and analogies, deciding whether a story or a step-by-step explanation will make the point best, writing a conclusion that will drive home the importance of the subject.

The amateur doesn’t. He may try to do it, because that’s what the work he thinks he’s called to do requires, and good for him for trying, but his heart isn’t in it. It isn’t a pleasure but a job. He may also set to work as one sets to work digging a ditch, or he may refuse to do the work, or he may write what he wants to write and not what his reader needs. He doesn't see the limitations as a challenge, he sees them as a burden, and too often a burden he can toss off.

This is true of other vocations, I’m sure, even if it’s truer of the more obviously creative vocations. The physicist tries to better understand the universe with the limited knowledge and tools he has and some part of his pleasure is the challenge of finding ways of finding out what he wants to know within those limits. The lawyer taking a difficult case must feel this. The accountant must feel this, though his vocation is too far from mine for me to supply examples. The work he would take as a game would leave me begging to be fired.

The essence of the vocation is the frame. If you want to know what you’re called to do, find the work whose limitations you want to defeat, the work that at its hardest feels to you like a game even when it’s a burden.

The author took up a related matter in You’re Not Chesterton, and God’s Cool With That on Aleteia.