Embrace Scarcity

When I was a kid, I’d record music off of the radio on cassette sometimes. I didn’t want to bug my mother for money to buy CDs and such. There was always Christmas and my birthday for that. So in the mean time, I’d have my machine ready while listening to the radio.

A few things could happen. If I was lucky, the DJ would mention a song I wanted to save was coming up, and I’d record everything from that moment until the end of the desired song. Bingo, I had the song. Also, if I was close enough and recognized the first moments of a song, I’d hit record. That meant, of course, I’d always be missing that first part of the song, but would have 99.9% of it. That would often suffice for my purposes. A few times I would just turn on the radio and hit record, and then go out and play or watch a movie. Like an audio fisherman, I’d come back later to see what I’d caught, and transfer songs I liked onto a separate tape.

One time I accidentally recorded over the last minute or so of a song I had archived. For several days I set that tape aside, and waiting for the radio station to play the song again. I caught up with the song halfway through one evening, and had an idea. Why wait around for the song to come on again sometime? I hit record, and saved the second half of the song, determined to just splice the end part of this recording, with the beginning part of the original recording. It took some doing, with just my keen ear and my $29.95 dual cassette portable stereo from K-Mart, but I eventually created a seamless copy of the song; I challenged several family members to discern with their naked ear where the splice had occurred; none of them were able to do so.


I didn’t have editing machines, and had no money to buy albums, and there was no iTunes at this time. So I got creative with what tiny bit I had available to me, and it worked. Throughout my childhood and teen years, I often utilized a low-budget/few resources/clumsy equipment approach to creating things like movie trailers, “TV” talk shows, mocumentaries and such. There is nothing quite like scarcity to sharpen the creativity and ingenuity of a determined child artist.

Or an adult artist, for that matter. Scarcity isn’t just a weirdo kid like me with no money making an audio variety show for his best friend at the time to listen to at home. I continue to embrace the idea of scarcity, and its cousin, minimalism.

Consider my one-man stage show, The King is But a Man. It debuted at a small black box theater a friend of mine runs. Yes, I had a bit of an “in” there, but the place is small, and has little budget to speak of. Due to scheduling conflicts, I usually had to rehearse late at night, in winter, before the heater was fixed. I lugged a space heater onto the stage each night, warmed up, and sometimes ejected Shakespearean monologues into the air on a train of breath-steam, a ratty stocking hat, not at all part of my costume, pressed over my ears. I’m sure it was a sight.

All this came after months of rehearsing the show within the confines of my own bedroom, a place I assure you is not designed for the purpose. All of this was, in some ways, a pain in my ass.

In other ways, however, it ennobled the artist and performer in me. I used what I had, when I had it, and I’m proud of the result: a play bred of scarcity in more than one sense. Having a full, warm, spacious rehearsal space whenever I wanted it would have yielded a fine show as well, but I can’t help but think I’d have not learned as many things about myself and the material.


Yet scarcity can be a choice. If I had that rehearsal space and a budget of thousands of dollars, some things about the process would have been different, but the nature of what I’m trying to do with the show would not have changed in any drastic sense. I might spend more money promoting it, but it’s premise would remain unchanged. Why? I choose scarcity of concept and execution to bring out my creativity and enhance the experience for the audience. The late, cold nights were circumstantial, but the minimalism, the scarcity of accouterments and complexities were not.

I’m now in the process of taking that show to other venues in the area, where I’m sure I’ll feed off different, specific scarcities.

In a sense, much of my fiction writing follows this scarcity philosophy. It’s not always the case, but I often set my stories in unspecific places. Towns, cities, whatever the story needs. I don’t usually use a real, identifiable place. That may not sound like scarcity, but consider it further. If I have the entire history of Frederick, Maryland to work with in something I write, and can reference any of its streets or buildings I like, I’m presented with a lot of options. There is the potential to describe the Baker Park Carillon or the soon to be demolished remains of the Fredericktowne Mall. I can feed off of those possibilities in impressive ways, no doubt. But if I remove the various reference points, I have to think about world building a bit more. I’m not heavy on setting description in my writing most of the time, but if I’m creating the setting out of whole cloth, I’ve got to do a bit more thinking, than if I simply set the novel in Chicago, researched the most popular deli on the south side, and describe the real-life sandwich my character gets there.

When carefully executed, I feel an author using scarcity can ignite a reader’s imagination as well as his own.

I’ll always admire foodies who can take scarce ingredients from a mostly empty kitchen and whip up something memorable and tasty. I assure you this is not me, but perhaps this is you, or someone you know. But again, scarcity breeds creativity, and sometimes it’s best to choose that scarcity.

Don’t get me wrong, having a ton of options on any given day can be great. Wonderful things can and do come about with access to large budgets and unlimited resources. I’ll probably write a heavily researched, historically accurate story someday. I wouldn’t say no if someone offered to give me my own theatre building. Still, don’t spend the bulk of your time trying to secure resources, so that “one day” you can do something spectacular. If you can embrace the nobility of squeezing blood from stones in lean times, it will pay off eventually, if not in resources, than in a special kind of satisfaction that isn’t as common when all of your potential needs are met instantly.

Be creative with your scarcity. Embrace it. Channel it. The ability to choose anything and everything about your endeavor is not always a luxury.In the end, having little to work with means deeply trusting yourself, and trust in yourself should never be scarce.

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