When you don’t create things, you become defined by your tastes rather than ability.
Your tastes only narrow and exclude people. So create.
When my husband recited a paraphrased version of this quote to me a couple of months ago, I didn’t think much about it. But, as time passed I found myself turning the words over in my mind with greater and greater frequency. I came to realize that, in some ways, I had become a person simply defined by my tastes. Of course, I think that having opinions and preferences is important but, when asked to describe myself, I don’t want to be stuck saying, “Well, I like Kurt Vonnegut, Downton Abbey, and the Beastie Boys.”
It’s true—I do like all of those things, but that doesn’t say much about me as an individual (surely the eight million American fans of Downton Abbey will agree with me). My preferences aren’t going to make any lasting impression on the people I love or the world at large. My preferences don’t come from inside of me but are inclinations, fleeting and interchangeable, that exist outside of me. And, as _Why says, my preferences often work to separate me from others by creating unnecessary alliances and enemies.
This is perhaps best illustrated by taking a look at Facebook. The process of “liking” things on Facebook, whether it is a product page or a friend’s photo, is an exercise in self-fashioning through preferences. While I wasn’t able to articulate this very well when I wrote about leaving Facebook last month, I now have a very clear understanding of what bothered me about the time I spent on that site. I still have a Facebook account, but I only use it to post links to my blogs, and I don’t allow anyone’s posts to show in my news feed. I do care about my friends, but I want to know them in an authentic way and I can’t do that on Facebook. The time I used to spend mindlessly on Facebook I have been trying to spend creating things—to self-fashion through what I do and make, and not what I like or dislike.
The same principle applies to the larger world. We are constantly being asked by advertisers, political parties, and other entities to choose between one thing and another, or to choose one thing over many others. I think that is why it is so important to always remain open to all of the possibilities. My husband has always been so good at this, and I have learned so much from him. I used to think about things in a very binary way but from him I have learned to see that there is truly a spectrum of possibilities. In most situations it is best to be somewhere on the spectrum and not to dwell forever at one of the poles. Changing my mindset was a huge step toward being a more creative person, as I think it’s fair to say that creative energy proliferates best in concert with a malleable mind.
Being creative doesn’t necessarily mean “making art.” In fact, I’m not a very good artist (though I do like to doodle). Photography is a great medium for me because I am able to capture what I see in my mind without my hands getting in the way. And, of course, blogging is a huge creative outlet for me. I love writing posts and matching my ideas up with my photos to create an aesthetic experience for my readers. I homeschool my children and I spend a lot of time thinking creatively about how to help them learn, not to mention the creativity involved in the actual teaching experience. I think that you can find the spirit of creativity in the generation of just about anything. I’m not saying that everything is art, but I am saying that there are myriad ways to be creative.
While the things I create are not awe-inspiring (and are, in fact, quite humble), I’m not aiming to be the pinnacle of human achievement. I’d simply like to be a person defined by my ability—by what I send out into the world—and not my partiality.
*Jonathan Gillette, who also goes by the monikers Why the Lucky Stiff or _Why, is an artist and computer programmer. You can read more about him here, and read his book, Why’s (Poignant) Guide to Ruby, about the Ruby programming language here.