On the Limits of Creativity and Passion for Form

Most of us are frustrated by the limits put on us, whether they are the limits of our own body (God, I’m personally disgusted by the limits imposed by my recent surgery) or the limits imposed by society. However, Rollo May argues, “that limits are not only unavoidable in human life, they are also valuable” and “that creativity itself requires limits, for the creative act arises out of the struggle of human beings with and against that which limits them.”

May’s major argument is that “ conflict presupposes limits, and the struggle with limits is actually the source of creative productions.” In a very real sense, this parallels the reason I chose “In a Dark Time” as the title of this blog for I believe people often grow stronger by facing crises. May goes on to argue that, “The limits are as necessary as those provided by the banks of a river, without which the water would be dispersed on the earth and there would be no river-that is, the river is constituted by the tension between the flowing water and the banks. Art in the same way requires limits as a necessary factor in its birth.”

I found May’s argument that poetry by the very limits imposed by form generates its own creativity quite convincing:

When you write a poem, you discover that the very necessity of fitting your meaning into such and such a form requires you to search in your imagination for new meanings. You reject certain ways of saying it; you select others, always trying to form the poem again. In your forming, you arrive at new and more profound meanings than you had even dreamed of. Form is not a mere lopping off of meaning that you don’t have room to put into your poem; it is an aid to finding new meaning, a stimulus to condensing your meaning, to simplifying and purifying it, and to discovering on a more universal dimension the essence you wish to express.

Of course, I might find this so convincing because I love poetry. However, the same argument can easily applied to my other great love, photography. Without the limitations of the “frame” photography would be next to impossible. At its best, the frame forces us to isolate an object and actually look at it. Without the limitations of the frame, there would only be “reality,” not art.

This idea that limits are necessary naturally ties in with May’s argument that there is a human “passion for form.” All of us, not just artists, have a compelling need for form:

The human imagination leaps to form the whole, to complete the scene in order to make sense of it. The instantaneous way this is done shows how we are driven to construct the remainder of the scene. To fill the gaps is essential if the scene is to have meaning. That we may do this in misleading ways-at times in neurotic or paranoid ways-does not gainsay the central point. Our passion for form expresses our yearning to make the world adequate to our needs and desires, and, more important, to experience ourselves as having significance.

I know that this is certainly true for me. Of course, according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator I am an INTP (Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Perceiver) and beginning “ with only a vague intuition, an INTP can construct a whole new world of ideas.) My main purpose in writing this blog has become to make some sense out of my life and to give my life a greater sense of order and direction.

According to May, this, too, is a form of creativity. Imagination and creativity are a part of all of our lives, and in order to be self-fulfilled we have to participate in creating our own reality.

This passion for form is a way of trying to find and constitute meaning in life. And this is what genuine creativity is. Imagination, broadly defined, seems to me to be a principle in human life underlying even reason, for the rational functions, according to our definitions, can lead to understanding – can participate in the constituting of reality – only as they are creative. Creativity is thus involved in our every experience as we try to make meaning in our self-world relationship.

According to Rollo May the creative process is, finally, “the struggle against disintegration, the struggle to bring into existence new kinds of being that give harmony and integration.”

Those who would like to read more about May can do so at:





5 thoughts on “On the Limits of Creativity and Passion for Form”

  1. Thank you for this section. You link me to a memory from my twenties, when I first encountered Rollo Mays’ books.

    I am linking you.



  2. Hi thanks for summarizing Rollo May, I used it in my blog. I gave credit but I also wanted to give you a heads-up.


  3. Thanks so much for this beautifully written article Loren. I’m a painter and lately have been doing some research on Creativity. Lovely to run across your article…can’t find my old copy of Courage to Create but I just ordered another.

    1. Glad you liked this summary, Janice.

      May is my favorite psychologist, and one of my very favorite thinkers.

      You might also find his My Quest for Beauty inspiring, especially since he was a painter himself and relates it to his life (I have commented on it, too.)

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