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?