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The Importance of Making Stuff

“Dog and Duck”–a picture by me–colored pencils

A couple days ago, my sister-in-law, Shantel, sent out a group text message. Shantel runs a daycare in her home, but she had the urge to bring her Cricut downstairs and do some crafts. “I just want to make stuff,” she wrote. It was a small thing, but it made me wonder: how often we “want to make stuff” and deny ourselves that creativity?

People want to be creative; it is a desirable trait. But what exactly does it mean to be creative? I, for one, have struggled with this label, despite being a writer. There was a period in my life when I didn’t think I was creative at all. I just didn’t seem to have any ideas. Well, any good ideas. Well, any original ideas. Well, any mind-blowingly awesome ideas that would change the course of humanity, because that, apparently, is what it means to be “creative.”

But the word “creative” actually comes from the word “create,” which is another word for “make.” To be “creative,” then, is to make stuff. And humanity, in general, is really, really good at making stuff. Whether that “stuff” is pyramids, paintings, eggs benedict, robots, fertility idols, pottery, books, music, YouTube videos, clothes, cars, or llama pinatas—we just like making things. And so the act of creation is an essential part of what it means to be human.

You can see it in children. Children like to make stuff, and we encourage them. Every time they make us a picture, no matter how badly scribbled, we proudly display it on the fridge. But is art a two-way street? As much as we ask kids to give us their art, do we ever give them our art in return?

I had spent Friday night playing with my four-year-old nephew Cameron, and when I left, he was crying, because he missed me. To make him feel better, I told him I’d draw him a picture, and he cheered up right away. Kids like receiving art from grown-ups. I remember, as a kid, being very impressed when grown-ups drew or colored, because they were so much better than me. And even now, I love whenever people give me a homemade gift.

But adults don’t seem to make stuff; instead, they tend to buy it. Part of it is due to time, but part of it is because we think that someone else can do it better. Now, obviously, humanity thrives on specialization. If I want a donut, I’m going to buy a donut, because I don’t know how to make a donut. It’s better to let a professional make it for me. And that’s fine. But at some point, the thinking seeps into our mindset: the superior thing is the bought thing. The superior art is the bought art.

I’m not saying to never buy art. Please support artists! But the art you buy and the art you make has different meanings. Sometimes, you want to purchase art, because it represents something you love. If I love coyotes, then I may decide to buy a picture of a coyote from someone who knows how to paint them. But if my nephew gives me a picture of, say, a Fortnite llama, I will keep it, not because I love Fortnite llamas, but because I love my nephew. The art does not represent the thing I love, it represents the person I love. In this way, art is like a photograph, but whereas the photograph only captures the outside of a person, art captures what’s on the inside.

And that’s why I think giving art is important. Because you are sharing, in some tangible way, what is inside of you. And who you are inside may change as the years go by, so the art acts as a kind of record. When you look at the art of children, you can see them growing. Adults also grow. Why shouldn’t we keep records as well?

But I think that making art is important for another reason, which has to do with empowerment. As I said, people have the urge to make things, and I think this is because whatever you make always ends up being an expression of the self. Whenever I make something and it turns out half decent, I am ridiculously proud of it, because I made it. It is mine.

Last week, I bought some acrylic paints, because I had a vision in my head that I wanted to communicate with the world. That vision was a dog staring at a duck. It was not a grand vision, but it was my vision, and it meant something to me. And so I set to work drawing and coloring the picture with colored pencils and then practicing acrylic techniques so I could paint my vision. I didn’t quite get to the dog and duck, but, while practicing, I did manage to paint a picture of a Sage, which is a tree-like humanoid species I created for my book The Changelings. I was so delighted with my high-school-quality art project, I had to show it off to everyone.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone cares about visual arts, but it seems to me that pretty much everyone wants to make something. But often times we tell ourselves, “I can’t.” And it’s this simple word, “can’t,” that is so disempowering. Everyone can make stuff—it’s what humanity does. Whether or not the stuff comes out good is an entirely different question. But just because what we make doesn’t match up to whatever imaginary standard of goodness we have in our heads—that doesn’t mean that we can’t do it or that it doesn’t matter.

My mom works as an aid to severely autistic kids, and this weekend, she was printing up some worksheets in order to help them learn. The worksheets had pictures on them. I remember, growing up, back before the Internet was a “thing,” she used to draw the pictures herself. She claimed she wasn’t a good artist, but I always knew what her drawings were. When my little sister was interested in ocean life, my mom drew dolphins and fish and sea horses on the walls, and turned her room into an undersea paradise. My mom used to doodle in her phone book as she talked to her friend, and I envied the realism of her faces and flowers. But nowadays, I don’t see her drawing. She hangs up my sister’s art on the living room walls, but I never see her make her own.

Sometimes I feel like a message that gets transmitted in our culture is that only certain kinds of people can create art, and if you are not one of these people, you can consume art, but you are not allowed to create it. If you are not good at art, you shouldn’t waste your time trying. This is discouraging. More than discouraging, it is disempowering. It is asking you to repress a very human impulse. It is asking you to stifle your voice.

And the reason I bring this up is because I am very against dehumanization—anything that tries to strip the humanity out of individuals. Typically, when people start to strip the humanity out of individuals—when they demonize or idolize them—we end up with hate crimes and cults, murder and genocide. But the other day I had a thought: How much easier is it to de-humanize other people if we first practice by de-humanizing ourselves? Conversely, if we learn to humanize ourselves, do we not learn how to humanize others?

Making stuff is very human; when we allow ourselves to be creative, we humanize ourselves. Part of being human is recognizing our limits—what we make might not be perfect, but it is ours, an expression of who we are. We have our own voices, we have a record of who we are, we feel capable, and we feel good. When we deny ourselves this impulse, we deny part of what it means to be human. And once we do that—well, what’s good enough for me is good enough for you. If I can’t be human, then neither can you.

Look, I’m not saying that art will save the world, and I’m not trying to shame anyone for not wanting to draw or paint. I just wanted to point out that sometimes there is more value in making stuff than we think.

“Sage”–by me–acrylics and colored pencils


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