Artists vs. Craftsmen, or: Why I’m Not Participating in NaPoWriMo This Year

I won’t be participating in NaPoWriMo this year. I waffled for the past couple of months as to whether or not I should. To explain why I’m not, I need to tell you about a recent revelation I had about myself:

I finally realized that I’m not actually a creative person. More importantly—I’m happy with that. I’m tired of feeling like I’m supposed to be creative when I’m clearly not.

To explain this revelation, I need to tell you a story about LEGO…

When my brother, sister, and I were kids, we had lots of LEGO sets. One day, my mom took all of our sets and combined them together, mixed them all up in a big tub. This wouldn’t have bothered me so much were it not for the fact that she also threw away all the instructions that had come with our sets.

Which meant I couldn’t build my LEGO moon base anymore. That upset me. I loved building the moon base.

My mom had the best of intentions for her children: she wanted to encourage us to use our imaginations and stimulate our creativity. The only problem is that my mind doesn’t work that way. Sit me down with a pile of LEGO bricks and tell me to build whatever I want… and my brain goes blank. Completely. Push me to be creative or imaginative and my mind shuts down. I got nothin’.

When I played with LEGO, my greatest satisfaction came from building the sets. It was a tremendous sense of accomplishment to go step-by-step and have it come out right in the end. To know I did it well and correctly. Building the sets made me happy.

For me, LEGO was never about creative expression. I never explained this to my mom, though, because I didn’t want to disappoint her.

I grew up in an era when kids were constantly encouraged to be creative: art, music, etc. I was always being presented with “blank slate” opportunities to unfetter my imagination.

But I never could. Every time—my mind would go blank. Presented with opportunities to do whatever I wanted, I could never think of anything to do.

God forbid you set me in front of a blank canvas, with paints and brushes laid out, and expect me to create something. The very idea of it fills me with dread.

I felt like there was something wrong with me. I was supposed to be creative but I just couldn’t do it. Clearly, I was deficient in this regard. I felt like I was failing in some essential way. And I’d get frustrated with myself, and with the adults who kept expecting me to do these things that I clearly couldn’t do.

But I was told, time and again, that I was supposed to be creative, so I kept searching for creative outlets that would click with me. That search led me to writing.

I’ve always had a knack for language. I was a precocious reader and I’ve always been able to write well, even from an early age. So if I was going to find a way to become a creative individual, it would most likely be through the medium of the written word.

Ergo, I decided I wanted to be a writer. For most of my life—from my childhood even up until a few weeks ago—if you had asked me, I would’ve told you that I wanted to be a writer. Science fiction, short stories, maybe a novel or two.

But I’m not a creative writer. I write essays and rants, occasional book and movie reviews, I’ve written a decent amount of poetry over the years, but I’ve never produced any significant amount of creative fiction. More to the point: I’ve never felt any desire to do the actual work of writing fiction.

Thus, I can no longer delude myself: I don’t really want to be a writer. I think I just convinced myself that I was supposed to want to be a writer.

This echoes a telling pattern I’ve discerned in my life. I see it with the LEGO of my childhood, I see it in some of my career choices, I see it in my love of performing.

With LEGO, I didn’t want to create, I just wanted to build.

I got into theater originally because I discovered a love of acting, but I never wanted to be a playwright. I don’t want to write the plays, I just want to perform them. (Which also explains why I suck at, and hate, doing improv.)

I found great satisfaction working in theater tech, but I never wanted to be a designer. I don’t want to come up with the set, I just want to build it and make it work.

I love music and singing, but I’ve never had the inspiration or desire to compose or write songs. I just want to sing.

My mom and my sister both became architects, but I became a carpenter. They wanted to design the buildings, I just want to build them.

You see the pattern here? I don’t know why it took me this many years to finally notice it. So I can restate my recent revelation from a different perspective:

I never wanted to be an artist. I always wanted to be a craftsman.

As a writer, I love crafting language, but I don’t enjoy trying to come up with ideas of what to write about.

I have a lot of thoughts and opinions—thus, I write essays and rants. I read books, watch movies, and react to them, analyze and assess them—thus, I write reviews. None of these require much creativity on my part, but they provide space to craft my words.

The reason I’ve written a fair amount of poetry over the years is because I can approach it more as a craftsman than as an artist. It’s not the same kind of “blank slate” creativity as, for example, writing a science fiction story. For me, poetry is mostly about describing the world. It’s about looking around me, carefully and deeply, and writing what I see, crafting my language as best I can.

For me, poetry isn’t about imagination, it’s about perception. It’s not about creativity, it’s about craftsmanship.

The writing prompts available for NaPoWriMo mean that I don’t have to come up with ideas from an entirely blank slate, but they still require a degree of creativity that doesn’t sit comfortably with me. It’s a good challenge for me to undertake on occasion, and my participation last year was productive and rewarding.

But I also felt a pressure that was very much akin to the pressure I felt when my mom presented my brother, sister, and I with a bucket of mixed up LEGO sets, tossed all the instructions, and expected me to just… make whatever I felt like.

That was never what I wanted. I just want to build the moon base. Study the plans, lay out the pieces, and put it together properly.

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