Writing at the Limit

Or What I Learned about Writing from Ayrton Senna

by Matthew Lowes


Image by Gabriele, CC-By-2.0

In the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix qualifiers, Ayrton Senna drove what is widely regarded as the greatest lap in the history of Formula 1 racing. Watching Senna drive his McLaren-Honda MP4/4 through the winding streets of Monaco with 1200 horsepower of turbocharged fury screaming behind his back, one has the sense of seeing something extraordinary happen. And this thing, whatever it is — maybe it’s art — could only happen because of one man’s obsession not just with winning, but with driving at the very limit of what’s possible, with pushing himself into realms unknown.

Anyone who has sat in a chair and stared at a blank page knows writing isn’t nearly as visceral as race car driving. Nevertheless, there are real challenges, and there are physical, emotional, temporal, and technical limits. One must also consider genre and linguistic conventions, internal logic, story structure, characterization, conception, design, and deadlines, all of which present various types of limits within the creative effort. And these limits are not just there to make your life difficult. They are there to present you with incredible opportunities.

We often think of limitations as impediment to our goals, but limits are really the prelude to genius. Without them there is nothing to push against, nothing to strive for in our creative work. In fact, when you consider it, the imagination itself may be a tool evolved to overcome limitations. The ability for creative invention is stimulated by challenges and obstacles. And perhaps only at the limit can we discover the truest and deepest potential of our endeavors.

On race day at the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix, Senna extended his lead over teammate Alain Prost so far that team managers were telling him on the radio to slow down. But he didn’t slow down. He kept driving as fast as possible, faster than anybody thought possible. Ultimately, he made a mistake, ran into a wall, and lost the race. Some people look at that and say he threw the race away, and sure he was devastated, but when you listen to Senna talk about his experiences you hear a different story. It’s clear that weekend, driving at the absolute limit, he discovered something far greater than winning a race could ever be.

Without any limitations, we might gaze eternally in beatific wonder at the splendor of an undivided universe. Unaware of any limitations we might sit on the sofa and do nothing at all. Neither one will get your novel written, or short story, or whatever it is you’re working on. After all, “the end” is a limit just waiting to be reached. So find some limits — create them if you must — and push against them! Push against them hard enough for long enough, and something extraordinary might happen. Because while writing may not be as visceral as driving the Monaco circuit in an MP4/4, anybody who has felt the wonder of seeing a story come together at their hands, knows it can be just as thrilling.


Hear Senna talk about his experience at the Monaco Grand Prix:



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