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 all the instructions that had come with our sets disappeared. I don’t know what happened to them—my mom swears she wouldn’t have thrown them away—but I could no longer find the step-by-step instructions for my sets after this.

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

My mom combined our LEGO sets because she wanted to encourage us to free build, 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 grew up in an era when kids were constantly encouraged to be creative: art, music, etc. This is a good and excellent thing. I’m lucky my parents and my teachers worked so hard to present me with so many opportunities. In school, we were always being presented with “blank slate” situations engineered to unfetter our imaginations.

The problem for me was that I never could do that. 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 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 didn’t want to disappoint people, 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. 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 or the lights, I just want to build them and make them work.

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

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

I don’t know why it took me this many years to finally notice the pattern here. 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 me with a bucket of mixed up LEGO sets and encouraged me to just… make whatever I felt like.

That wasn’t really what I wanted. I just wanted to build the moon base. Study the plans, lay out the pieces, and put it together properly.

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