My Creativity Manifesto

It's a new year.  I have unpinned the old calendars from the wall and resolved to buy  new ones once they go on sale.  I've taught myself to write and type dates that end in eleven.  I've watched the Facebook memes promoting hopeful promises and forward payments and all manner of good intentions rain lazily down my virtual wall the way that good ideas so often do--without sticking.  I've felt the cold grip of winter's cynicism grab at me and pull me back from writing this very piece for a solid week because I hear an icy voice whispering "who cares", "who will read it", "what can I possibly add that isn't yesterday's news", and "didn't all of my friends already promise to send something homemade to the first five people who asked for it?"  And still, as this southern town braces for a storm, its residents climbing over one another for batteries and bottled water that they will forget in the back of a closet, I feel compelled to finally put into words some account of the necessary and immediate change that I've taken. 

In our On Demand culture we are privy to a world of options.  We are faced with an endless array of choices for food, entertainment, education, activities, and escape and those choices are closer now than they have ever been in human history.  We can call forth nearly anything ever produced from our digital libraries of books, art, music, and films.  We can order shoes and have them delivered in mere days, for free.  We can venture to one of countless stores within minutes to shuffle through collections of soups, breads, spices, and cheeses that are so vast that we couldn't possibly explore them all before they change.  All of this progress is fantastic.  I've seen more movies in the last month from my "I always meant to see that" list thanks to streaming video than I bothered to watch in the last five years.  I've gained an appreciation for varieties of apples that I had never heard of until I was in my 30s.  My bookshelves are overflowing with wonderfully printed tomes about Infographics, Logo Design, the history of Comic Books, Action Figure collecting, and Independent Cinema and almost none of those topics would have even been a subject of any note 20 years ago.  Still, something feels lost.  In the midst of all of this consumption, we have largely forgotten how to create. 

Creativity has somehow been twisted into a word that people associate with artists, free spirits, and the kind of folks who paint swirls of paisley on old VW bugs.  Just as I might complain that I'm not good at math, so many people I know will freely admit that they are not creative.  Yet creativity is what you might call a core human trait.  It's what allowed us to survive on this planet, to thrive, to commune, to develop, and ultimately to get to this place where we find ourselves now.  Without the ability to create life, or fire, or shelter, or to turn raw ingredients into meals, we would not have made it.  How strange it is that at this great height of civilization and technological achievement, so many people don't make a single thing even once per day.  I can wake up to my electronic alarm (backed up by my phone), heat up a pre-portioned packet of oatmeal, browse the internet, brush my teeth with a disposable brush as I drive to the store for a new DVD that I fancy, pay someone to cook me a nice lunch, play online games on my phone then continue them on my laptop at home, and correspond with a dozen people virtually before I go to sleep.  Nowhere in that day have I added anything to the world, and that's going to change. 

When was the last time you cooked something completely from scratch?  Maybe inspired by food TV and culinary blogs you occasionally find yourself trying out a recipe in the kitchen, but if you are like most people that I see in the grocery store, you let someone else do 90% of the preparation.  As I marveled at the grocery cart of a woman in front of me last week, I tried to count the number of single-ingredient items being swiped across the scanner.  Pork chops, eggs, and whole milk were the only ones.  Everything else came in a box, a can, a pouch, or a shrink-wrapped value pack with ten items for the price of eight.  She bought canned vegetables, ice cream, potato chips, and dozens of other things that were designed to be consumed on demand.  Even if she had stacked her cart full of wholesome, organic varieties of all of those things the simple fact remained that she would do nothing with the contents of that basket that would resemble creating a meal. 

Cooking is creative.  It's a simple form of making something that warms us and fulfills us in ways that simply reheating food cannot.  We can refine recipes over a lifetime just as we can hone cooking techniques with practice.  No one ever learned anything from heating up a frozen pizza every night, but learning to make a dough ball, to whip up a sauce, to shred cheese and slice toppings in a way that they will cook beautifully--those are creative experiences from which we grow.  And the food that we've created, even when it isn't worthy of Micheline stars, is especially rewarding when we share it.  I've cooked many meals for people and that experience is always a bit of a gamble.  The food may not always arrive on the plate with the look and flavor that I expected but I learn from that, I try new things, and at a most fundamental level I get to nourish my loved ones with something that I created out of nothing.  From now on, I want the contents of my grocery cart not to have ingredients, but to BE ingredients. 

When was the last time you gave someone a gift?  I see things in stores and catalogs that remind me of my wife all the time, and thankfully I'm in a position to purchase those things as often as I like to bring a smile to her face.  I know her taste in books, music, and toys.  We tend to like the same art and posters.  A day does not go by that I don't want to treat her with some trinket, large or small, that I think she will appreciate or use.  And yet in all of that, something still feels missing.  Our shelves are full of books we have not read, DVDs we have not watched, and games we rarely play.  We have shoes lodged under other shoes stuffed deep in the recesses of our closet, buried under a bag of t-shirts and yet shoes and hoodies and cute t-shirts make perfect gifts.  I know that these things will never go away completely--we won't resort to knitting all of our own clothes--but I miss the tactile experience of making gifts.  Our parents all save our kindergarten macaroni art until it crumbles and decays into the binding of scrapbooks and yet the lines of people who are returning store-bought gadgets and gizmos after Christmas is maddening.  Gifts are so often perfunctory that we find ourselves roaming the aisles of stores in a daze wondering what on Earth we will ever get for someone. 

It doesn't have to be that way.  Each of us can bake cookies, or fold a piece of paper and turn it into a hand-written card, or paint an old pepper mill, or burn a CD of our favorite songs.  The handmade revolution is not limited to hipsters and young people who like to sew together clothes from thrift stores.  We used to make mixtapes for our girlfriends and boyfriends but now we just carry along a lifetime's worth of songs on a device the size of a credit card and we wonder why none of it feels very special.  Even when we aren't truly making something brand new, we can still act as a specific and personalized filter to share things with the people we hold dear.  If you get a gift from me this year, it will be something that I made or customized or otherwise got my hands dirty to give to you.  Please don't take this to mean that I don't know that you want a blu-ray disc or a portfolio of famous art prints or that I am not paying attention to the consumable things that turn you on.  We can and should talk about those things and experience them together, but you will likely be experiencing them because you obtained them in some other way than as a gift from me, but perhaps you can enjoy them along with a mug of my homemade soup or in the glow of a new handmade lamp shade.  We need to turn all of this detritus of modern life into something that has meaning, and one way to do that is to give those items meaning by transforming and repurposing them. 

My computer used to be a tool for creativity.  It was purchased and configured to be a true workstation for music, graphics, and video.  Somehow over the years that workstation has turned into little more than a conduit for consumption.  It's a giant digital funnel for receiving all of the bits and bytes that make up our On Demand world.  I value the machine for its ability to bring the world to my doorstep, but I've somehow lost that sense that it is a vastly powerful tool for creation, too.  In fact, it's hard for something to be both things successfully, or at least hard for me to interact with the thing in both ways.  When I sit down with the express intention of writing, scanning images, designing postcards, or writing songs I first have to make it through the distraction firewall of email, blogs, news, scores, and status updates.  This was never a problem for a painter who's tool does only one thing.  No guitarist has ever sat down with a guitar and a stomp box and first used them to see what his high school friends had for lunch.  Since my computer is my primary tool, I need to get better at using it to create things and stop spending so much time on it just passing the hours. 

In truth, I am not really sure how I got here.  I've railed against mindless consumerism, brand worship, and crass commercial tie-ins for over a decade.  Fighting against the soulless plastic world we inhabit has been the thrust of my music and art for as long as I can remember.  Yet here I sit amidst stacks of storage boxes, plastic tubs, bookshelves, and bags full of stuff that I don't even have room for anymore.  My existential search for meaning outside of consumption hasn't kept me from amassing a collection of 800 action figures, thousands of CDs and DVDs, and more bits of software and hardware and electronic junk than I will ever find a use for in this lifetime.  For all of the paintings I have half-finshed, remixes I have promised and never delivered, posters I have designed and not printed, and short stories I have dreamed up never to write, I have fed thousands of hours of potentially creative time into droning consumption.  I consume Facebook statuses, YouTube videos, poorly-written film reviews, toys, comic books, and not-so-clever commentaries about box office results and soccer games.  I have spent hours upon hours looking at the creative output of others and saying "wow, that's cool" and then clicking through to the next item, the next page, the next void.  It's no secret that I've consumed more than my share of food in my lifetime and my body has paid the price.  I'm not sure how I got here but I know that it is all going to stop. 

My goal for this year and for time marching onward after that is to add more to this world than I take from it.  How that balance can be measured is something I don't know yet, and it may always have to be as intangible as a feeling that I am making decisions to create rather than to consume.  I suspect that it will be measured in small victories, and the first one is this manifesto.  I share these words with you as I hope to share many other things that I create, or that we create together.  Let's dig in, get our hands dirty, feel one thing transform into another, and really make something for a change.