Why Do We Do The Things We Do?

WHY?What motivates you? Why do you do the things you do? Why do you make the things you make?

So many of us make things. We weave, we bake, we quilt, we “craft,” we garden, we sew, we work in wood, paper, metals, fibers, clay. And, of course, we write.

But why do we pick one or two of these expressive outlets instead of others?

What draws me to fibers and textiles and you to your medium? How come one thing turns you on but might leave me kind of cold?

I’ve been pondering the reasons I make the things I make.

I like to be creative. I like to be productive. I like to understand how things work. I like to add something lovely to my world.

Okay, well, all of those things might apply to any creative outlet. But they don’t give me any special insight to my own interests.

Three other elements that draw me to a specific craft or creative activity seem to be the following:

I like to solve problems. I really like my creating to have an intellectual component. I want my brain to be engaged. If someone says, “Oh, this craft is great—it’s mindless,” I’m unlikely to be impressed. So, I seem to be drawn to crafts that have an analytical component and present problems to be wrangled with.

I like the math and geometry involved in planning and piecing a complicated quilt design. I like the need to really ponder the exact sequence of steps to be followed in a difficult jewelry design. I am intrigued by, and still overwhelmed, by the endless nuances of weaving structure.

They things make my brain hurt. I guess I love that.

I also like to make things that will last. I don’t cook at all but I like to bake and make candy very much. I think it’s because, first, baking is rules-based (and I love rules), whereas cooking is much more improvisational. But, more than that, baked goods and candy might stay around for a day or two while cooking gets gobbled up in 20 minutes. The idea of spending a lot of time and energy on a dinner that is just . . . gone depresses me.

I make things of metal and stones and fabrics that are more likely to stand the test of time. Those monks who make the sand art, knowing it is evanescent, doing it partly because it won’t last? I admire it but could never, never do it. Same with the people who build fabulous sand or ice sculptures—their art is of the moment. I want mine to be of many moments.

I like old, handmade things because they lead me to think of the humans behind them and I guess I hope that someday someone will run their hands over something I’ve made and think of the person who made it. There are vital human connections to be made as a result of our creative output.

Taking this a step further, I realize that, in addition to hoping that my art will connect me with people who come after me, I like creative outlets that connect me with human beings who came before me.

When I taught college, my academic discipline was rhetoric and public address—the stuff of human communication and persuasion and expression, and just that which Aristotle taught his students in Greece, in the 5th century BCE.

I can remember saying to my students, “Think how exciting this is! We’re gathered in a classroom, discussing the same topics and the same problems that thinkers have been discussing for 2500 years. We’re here together, not looking for one right answer, but exploring what it means to be human, just as they were!”

As you might expect, I got a lot of blank looks from this. But I always saw a few sparks of understanding, too.

For some of us, the thrill in making comes from the thrill of knowing that humans make—it’s a large part of what we do and what we are. And to be making in the same manner, building on and continuing the skills developed through the ages—for me, that’s heady stuff!

I love reading about the history of craft—how women wove as far back as the Paleolithic era, how exquisite jewelry was crafted without specialized tools, how tiny, ornate stitches were done in candlelight. I love the practical concerns that led humans to develop these skills and, more, the ways in which these art forms were used symbolically.

I love the connection I feel to people, women, of so long ago. So different, so much the same.

The writing I do fills these needs as well:

The problem-solving—Writing is never mindless. To write is to wrangle with difficulties. How do I express myself clearly? How do I draw the reader in? What is worth saying, how best to say it?

The connection to the past and to the future— All of us who write, not with the idea of the next Great Novel or renown, but just for the pleasure of writing and communicating, are carrying on a great tradition. We’re the Samuel Pepyses of the future, documenting and providing insight to daily life in the early 21st century, reflecting what it means to be human here and now.

In an era when people don’t write personal letters much anymore, our blogs become a place to convey the minutiae, the worries, the thrills, the little things that make up our lives. And, when I put words down in my blog and hit “publish,” my words, and any knowledge and insight I impart, become more likely to carry on. My thoughts and my way of seeing things, might, just might, outlast me.

I’ve learned in my blogging that these wordy, contemplative posts are not popular. That’s okay—while I work hard to keep my writing reader-centered, I’ve also come to realize that sometimes, as with all my making, I need to please myself. And, as was true with my students, I am thrilled to get the occasional sparks of understanding that reassure me that I’m not alone!

If you’ve read this far, have you considered what draws you to the creative choices you’ve made? I’m still working through my thoughts on this and would love to hear from you—why are you drawn to your particular art or craft or expressive outlet? Any of the reasons I’ve mentioned? Or ones I’ve missed?

45 thoughts on “Why Do We Do The Things We Do?

  1. What, no pictures? Just kidding. I hear you about the kind of response you get to long, philosophical posts. But I think they may be the real reason some of us blog. As to why we do the things we do – I chose quilting (after trying drawing, weaving, photography) because it combines fabric and color, my passions. While I began with rules/pattern based quilting, I now journey further afield to make up stuff. I’d say about a tenth of what I make is worth passing forward to the future, but that’s OK. I need to fail to succeed.

    • Kerry, I think we might be twins in this. You read my essay the other day on why I quilt. I’m not interested in making easy quilts. They should be hard, fully engaging. And I’m not interested in “writing” a blog that consists of a photo posted every day with 18 words attached. While some people do that incredibly well, usually I find them boring. I’d rather puzzle out the connections between things. I’m working on a post now of this same “wordy, contemplative” style, and I can’t write yet because there are too many connections. First I need to pare them a bit, and then move forward.

      Thanks for posting. I hope many people answer your questions. I’ll stop back later to see what they have to say.

      • Great response, Melanie–I’ll look forward to the new post you’re pondering! And I’ve been amazed at the responses I’ve gotten from other readers–I didn’t give people enough credit for being willing to read, I guess! As far as “easy” quilts, I, too, have always been turned off but the “quilt in a day” sort of approach. I understand why it works for many people but I quilt because I love the process (more than the product) so why rush the process?

    • I laughed out loud at the “no pictures?” Who knew that was going to be such a big deal in blogging?! I make up some stuff with quilting–I tend to take a traditional piecing pattern and try to do interesting things with light and dark–but mostly I really like the rules. And I think we might be surprised about what people value of the work we’ve done–some of my favorite vintage pieces are the quirky ones, less than perfect, but oh so human!

  2. What an interesting and inspiring read, Kerry! You once told me ” making art is personal” That stuck with me ever since. So true, and that’s why I could never explain why I do the things I do arts and crafts wise. (especially since I am not as good with words and writings as you are;0)) I know a little of what motivates me.
    Knitting & crocheting is my yoga. Cooking is sheer joy, I love happy faces and satisfied appetites on my lovely set table and I allow no snarfling of foods cooked by me. Cooking and eating is a social event not be hastened!
    Drawing, art projects of different nature and photography is me expression emotions, I cannot put in words. It is challenging, developing, hair tearing with frustration, crumbling with dissatisfaction or a deep joy and happiness of being ( a bit) content with the results. Great post yet again, xoxox Johanna

    • When you say knitting and crocheting are your yoga I have to smile. People laugh at me because I like to iron and I say, “You meditate your way, I’ll meditate mine.” Now, knitting is NOT meditative and calming for me! I’m so impressed with people who can do it! My husband feels the same way about cooking that you do–he just loves it (lucky for me!) And, when you describe your reactions to your current art projects, I think of what I’m going through now with weaving–it’s so hard to learn! But I guess we both want to be challenged in new ways–it feels so good to meet that challenge. doesn’t it?!

  3. Oh dear, I have a million creative outlets. I am for sure a problem solver but NOT a rule follower. I am an avid sewer and always have a construction project going and all sorts of projects in between. I love the projects that force me to come up with solutions and here knowing there are no rules can be very helpful. I have always been confounded by those who feel there is only one RIGHT way. That’s not creative at all. Trying something a different way often leads me to a totally different result that is often even better than what I originally intended.

    • I might enjoy sewing more if I understood it well enough to solve the problems that arise! I can solve problems that come up when I’m sewing a quilt by hand but working on a machine or trying to sew clothing (eek!) kind of freaks me out. I completely understand, though, about the thrill of making something work through your own creative problem solving!

  4. “We’re the Samuel Pepyses of the future, documenting and providing insight to daily life in the early 21st century, reflecting what it means to be human here and now.” This is definitely one of my ‘whys’ for writing. It’s also a small effort to add goodness and beauty to the world, and, as in any endeavour of making/creating, I am, I think, making a statement of faith that there is a future; that there will be good people who will read and care about what I have added to the world, be it is ever so small. Great post! I think your lectures must have been wonderful. 🙂

    • I love the way you said that–“a statement of faith that there is a future”–perfect! The continuity of the whole endeavor, the building on what came before us and leaving our own creations, upon which to build, means a great deal to me. And, regarding my lectures–I always thought I was brilliant but . . . . 😉

  5. Your comments on cooking and baking made me smile. Although I do bake on occasion, I don’t really enjoy it as it is rules based. Kind of like a chemistry experiment. Get a measurement wrong and wham…you end up with a flop. I love to cook. I rarely follow recipes. It’s based on what’s on sale at the market this week or what I have in the pantry. It’s a challenge to come up with a variety of meals that are healthy and satisfying.

    And my blogs…I mainly write them for myself. One is to store all the research on antiques that I sell on Etsy. I love to research but I don’t want to research the same thing twice. Sometimes I’ll completely forget that I’ve already researched something only to find all I need to know right there in my own blog. And if this info is helpful to someone else, great! My other blog is a journal to keep track of what’s going on in the garden or to document any good recipes that I’ve come up with.

    • I knew you felt that way about cooking, from reading your blogs! You and my husband would get along famously–he cooks the same way and produces super yummy meals. I don’t get it but I’m grateful! Your antiques blog, although written for yourself, provides so much amazing documentation that I’m sure it will continue to draw readers–I can’t believe how much you know on your specialties!

  6. Yes, I have given this some thought over the years, and I definitely agree with the connection to people from the past. One of my favorite knitting books is about the history of knitting socks 🙂

  7. First of all, I think we make things because we were made in God’s image; and God is the ultimate creator and maker of things!

    Read your blog over again; I believe you answered all your own questions. 🙂

    I write … and garden … and play music because those are the primary interests God sewed into me in the womb. No need to ponder it any further.

    We out here are grateful that writing is one of your joys … because we too are now able to enjoy your other crafting projects as well.

    **I’ve learned in my blogging that these wordy, contemplative posts are not popular. That’s okay—while I work hard to keep my writing reader-centered, I’ve also come to realize that sometimes, as with all my making, I need to please myself. And, as was true with my students, I am thrilled to get the occasional sparks of understanding that reassure me that I’m not alone!**

    Don’t be so hard on yourself; if contemplative writing weren’t popular, Henry David Thoreau would have been a television repairman. And trust me, you’re getting those occasional sparks out here.


    • I have to admit that the sparks of understanding that I’ve gotten from this post have thrilled (and surprised) me! I shouldn’t’ve underestimated people so much–the responses, including yours, have taught me so much about the people with whom I’ve been interacting!

  8. Oh – I loved this post! I popped in for a two minute visit and stayed – much, much longer 🙂 I had thoughts and questions, comments and head noddings or shakings at every paragraph to share with you. I want to be sitting opposite you and having this conversation, it is the one that takes us to the very heart of who we are!

    I think we work so differently – i seem to have settled mainly with painting as my artistic expression, though I work in, meddle in or play around with just about any other plastic craft. I am not so good at planning out. I can do it, but then find somewhere in the creative process I will deviate. I like freedom. I wonder if I am a tad anarchic in my dotage…… I like immediacy and the prospect of going in another direction with a change of colour or the stroke of a brush.

    I totally understand the Buddhist philosophy behind the sand mandalas – all things are impermanent. While I am always happy if someone likes something I have made and am always happy when I make something practical, for me it is the process – being immersed in the creation of something that may surprise me when it is done. I often look at finished works and wonder how I knew to do that or even wonder how I did it at all!

    I am always awe filled and inspired by the stitch counters, the pattern followers and even more so by the pattern makers. I just am not one of them 🙂

    • When my mother read this post, she said, “wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could meet with your blog friends and have this discussion in person?” Yes!! It would be amazing! I guess we’ll have to make do here, though. Your approach and mine are so different! I realize, I think, that I lack the confidence to express myself for the sake of expression. When I took painting and other courses in the “fine” arts, I never knew if what I was doing was “good” in the same way I can look at the craftsmanship in my current work and know that it measures up. Making “art” seems daunting and impossible to me. Making a good warm quilt, with an attractive design and a purpose in life–that’s within my ability!

      • I have learned that in the visual arts ‘good’ is a subjective adjective 🙂 What appeals to one is unappealing to another. What I like one year I may give away another. For me 99% of the satisfaction of creating anything is found in the process! Is it the same for you?

  9. Interesting. And I love the fact that all of our responses to this post will be different. I love knitting because it fulfils two separate needs at different times. I first enjoy the intellectual and creative challenge of designing something beautiful and striking. I love to be ambitious when I design things. And I love the fact that with needles and yarn you can create pretty much any pattern (whereas if I took up dressmaking, for example, I’d be limited by the designs on the fabric that I could buy). I love pattern, more so than shape. So I love to do stranded knitting.

    Then once the design process is done, I love the sheer mindlessness of following the chart or pattern, because for me knitting is also escapism. It demands just enough attention that I can’t really start properly worrying about things or thinking about what useful things I ought to be doing instead, but it’s not so demanding that I can’t let my thoughts wander. I can do it when I’m tired. I can do it when I’m waiting. It’s quiet and peaceful and it satisfies both my comfort with tiny little pedantic details AND my excitement about showing off finished objects.

    Finally, I love the fact that from a relatively few lines of instructions on a page, you can create a 3-d garment. That never ceases to impress me. (I’m easily impressed.)

    Thank you for such an interesting and thought-provoking post.

    • Great response! I like that you really thought about the different stages of your work and explain see how they meet different needs. To me, what you do seems, in part, like drawing with yarn and I had never really considered that possibility before–as you say, the intellectual, problem-solving component must be very demanding (and exciting!) Like you, I love the idea of creating something from nothing–fabric woven from pieces of string, a bowl from a flat piece of metal, whatever–it feels magical.

  10. Such an interesting post. Now, unlike you, I can’t bear to sew. I find the repetitive movements involved (even though they constantly change) very stressful: same with knitting, which tenses me up into a wired spring. Cooking though: I love to cook. I don’t mind that it’s all gone in half an hour. I’ve created something that people have (I hope) enjoyed, using inspiration, the kitchen store cupboard, and even the gaps in the kitchen store cupboard, to create something new and tasty, in which the original recipe, if there was one, was simply a jumping-off point. Increasingly, I love to find out about the cooking of cultures very different from our own, and incorporate those ideas into the food we eat regularly. So whereas you love that connection with the past, I love that connection with other women (often women anyway) in other cultures in the here and now. Which applies to blogging too of course. I’m trying to develop other ways of expressing myself other than through writing – in photography, and drawing: so much to do, so little time! Thank you for sharing such fascinating thoughts

    • As I read your feelings about cooking, I began to think that maybe part of my problem with cooking is that I am a ridiculously picky, conservative eater. I don’t like so many foods, so I don’t see too many recipes that sound good. Lucky for me, my husband cooks the way you do, loves it, and is willing to keep my pickiness in mind (with the occasional rolling of his eyes!) And, to your comment about sewing–I get very stressed when I sew on a machine. It’s weird. Mostly, I only like to sew by hand, slowly and, you’re right, repetitively. I think I like it because I can think while I sew and because it lets me spend a lot of time in my head!

  11. I used to quilt a long time ago but unlike you, I didn’t like the math involved. Like you however, I prefer baking over cooking. Baking is fun but I’ve even cut back on that because I don’t want to keep the calorie-laden temptations in the house. I was into gardening for years until Lyme disease put the fear of God in me. Hmmm, I guess I’m exhausting several creative outlets. Need to find another one that’s physical. Something I can touch besides the keyboard.

    • I think most people work their way through different creative outlets over the years–out needs change, the things that make us happy and fulfilled. I wonder what you’ll find next–and I hope you’ll tell us about it when you find it!

  12. i love your post.. and it really got me into thinking.. I used to bake as an outlet of relief.. and my friends got all my baking stuff.. LOL.. maybe I didn’t do too well with that.. and then i got bored and I’m into craft now.. and of course my friends got all the bits and pieces of my prototype.. 😀 lol.. so.. i’m not sure what’s next.. I’m also not sure.. is it like a stages in life change or something.. maybe later in life I’ll do more other stuff.. like stamp-collecting.. I’ve really got this huge collection which I got to sort out.. well.. will leave that to one day Later.. 😀

    thanks for setting me into thinking on “WHY”

    • My hobbies have changed over time, too. I used to bake like a crazed woman but now I don’t so much–too many calories! I’ve gone through different stages, like you, and sometimes wonder what’s next!

  13. Hmm. . . I never gave this any thought before, but I think that in my mind I differentiate between cooking, writing, and arts/crafts. I like to cook, and find it relaxing–but tend to think of it as just part of my daily routine. I enjoy writing–and I’m sure it is where I am most persistent and creative. For some reason, I tend to be drawn to arts and crafts that are fairly repetitive–and don’t take too much mental energy. For example, I enjoy doing needlepoint.

    • You’ve found your own ways to meet your own needs! I can remember doing needlepoint–those designs that were printed in color on the canvas. I liked it! The only problem was figuring out what to do with them when they were done. Do you make pillows?

  14. I have just discovered your blog and this is the first post of yours I have read. I feel as if I have stumbled into Aladdin’s treasure cave. I am drawn to textile crafts for problem solving, creativity, utility, sustainability, beauty and connection to the past. When I spin on a spindle, using unprocessed fibres, I feel a connection with women across cultures and time…it awes me every time. Making transforms us from consumers to producers, literally creating our world with our hands. That has become a powerful act in these times. I look forward to reading more of your thoughts.

    • How great to have you here! Your comment is so eloquent–it could be its own blog post (or maybe it has been–I haven’t delved into your archives yet!) Have you read “Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years” by Elizabeth Wayland Barber? It is quite academic and heavy and absolutely fascinating. When I was finished, I felt a bond with Paleolithic women across civilizations–amazing!

  15. This was fun to read! I love your thought that we bloggers are the Samuel Pepyses of the future, that we are recording what daily life is like in a way that might be interesting to someone in the centuries to come! I certainly hope so. It’s also interesting to see that you prefer tricky crafts to the easy ones.. perhaps having wrestled with the problems makes the end product all that more satisfying. I mostly like to craft things that are in some way useful and not just decorative.. although I am a fan of the odd mindless craft also! xx

    • It’ll be interesting to see if your crafting tastes change as your life changes. I’ve preferred “the odd mindless craft” a lot when my life was chaotic and challenging in other areas. But, now that I’m retired and don’t have the challenges of work life, I seem to look challenges elsewhere.

  16. I think you are spot on, many people don’t read or find enjoyment in reading. I would imagine its because it takes time and isn’t immediately satisfing. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, I do not know.

    For me, I need structure and routine. Oddly I thrive on recreating and refining, which at times makes me crazy but I know it feeds my creative soul. I have had to teach myself (many times over) to enjoy the process, not just the end result. Don’t rush, enjoy the ride. I come from a family that needed to create to survive and I try hard to honor that, although it’s easy go out and buy clothing, what if I took the slow path to make it and really thought about the process, I might be able to lessen my foot print on the earth and that makes me so much happier.

    I do not for a minute consider myself an artist, but I do consider myself a crafts person. I say “craft” in the highest regard, making something with a use. Don’t get me wrong, I honor the artist with the highest regard but I think I’m not made from that cloth, which is fine, I appreicate fine art with a deep love.

    But at the end of the day I only have a handful of hours, not even, to spend playing, so I try hard to keep my hobbies in check. Perhaps some day I will add more to my arsenal of crafts but for now it’s hand and needle, with and without electricity.

    • I think we’re a lot alike–when I was working, I focused my energy on one or two craft outlets. It wasn’t until I retired that I felt this, almost, explosion of energy and desire to try new things. It’s fun but can be overwhelming. And, like you, I would never think of myself as an artist. My whole nature is too practical, too tied up in productivity, to even allow me to make art, I think. But I do want whatever I craft to be aesthetically appealing and well-crafted, as well as useful.

  17. Thanks for this insight into what makes you tick. And thanks, as always, for commenting so faithfully on other people’s blogs. Perhaps I will do better if I ever retire.

  18. I make things for many of the reasons you and other commenters state. One of them is to bypass or at least mitigate the capitalist/consumption based channels of acquisition. Another is hard to describe — it’s almost a spiritual reason — like the object becomes infused with my thoughts/essence/effort (and sometimes my blood!)! Maybe it has something to do with “making my mark” as well. Tied to this — I like making things because I like using the things I make so much — they almost have a life of their own because of this infusion of spirit. It is why I like things made by other people so much, too.

    I also love how I “lose time” when I make things — time just stops or maybe there is no time? I liken this to meditation as some others do above. You know, when you look up and realize you’ve been working on something for hours and it feels like minutes?

    I like to make both the hard mental work puzzle-y stuff, and also the flowy mindless (and I mean mindless in a good way, as it in takes me out of myself) stuff.

    I’m sure I’ll think of even more reasons after I hit post comment 🙂

    • I can relate to all your reasons, at least to some degree. I like looking around my house and thinking “I made that,” “I found that handmade thing at a garage sale.” The one-of-a-kind-ness of it all works for me. The things I make just HAVE to have a practical use, too–I’m not one for making pretty things to sit on a shelf. I’m working on a weaving now that isn’t turning out as I had planned and it’s driving me crazy–I like the fabric but WHAT am I going to do with it?!

      Your comments always get me thinking more, Jackie!

  19. Pingback: Buying New or Making Do? | Love Those "Hands at Home"

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