After deciding, totally on a whim (and with far less forethought than I should have invested in it) to follow a friend's challenge to create something every day for the month of March
, I started thinking a lot about what it means, for me, to MAKE something, and how that's changed over the past few years.
I'm pretty sure I always knew I wanted to be a writer. But I'm pretty sure that was mostly out of a sense that words, and the things we did with them when they left our mouths or our hands and made their way out into the world beyond us, mattered
. I wanted to do something with those words. I wanted to show other people how they could matter. And being a writer seemed like the only option available to me: after all, no one was going to pay me to sit on my couch all day and read books.
I'm a stubborn person, and a critical one. I tend to be very critical of myself for giving up on projects I said I'd follow through on, even when those projects are no longer as central to my conception of who I am as they were when I first devised them. And so as a result, late in college when I realized I wanted to apply to grad school and that I felt so much more fulfilled in my English classes than my creative writing classes, I beat myself up over it. I was majoring in English so I could teach high school English and still have time to write on the side, until writing became the thing I did full-time. That was the plan. That had always been the plan. (I realize this sounds like exaggeration, but seriously I have documentary evidence of my desire to be a teacher and writer from as far back as an "About Me" survey I filled out in the second grade). Going against the plan wasn't just going against myself, in some fundamental way -- it was "giving in" to doing the thing that was "easy" and that I could know
I was good at, rather than the thing that promised fewer tangible rewards in the near future but was "more worth it."
And you know, I'm really glad I stared down my anxiety about that plan I'd made for myself all those years ago, and let myself be okay with the fact that I'd changed, because I love what I do as a graduate student. Not all of it, no -- but a substantial portion of it, all of the parts of it that have to do with belonging to a community of people who care about the production of knowledge, whether those "products" are tangible or not. All the parts of it that have to do with how much words matter. (And lo and behold, I do
get paid to sit on my couch all day and read books!) It is, in some ways, an easier life than the one that I used to want -- but part of that is because I think it's always easier to live the life you want to be living than the one you think you should be living.
It's become easier for me to accept the fact that what I do (and love) now isn't the thing I thought I would never stop wanting to do (i.e. creative writing) as I've come to admit to myself that the same impulses that prompted me to that old plan are satisfied by the new one. It's hard to justify this to people other than myself -- the things that I "make" as an English grad student, when they are concrete, are also directed at a very specialized audience. I'm writing seminar papers and conference talks and lectures that may never have audiences beyond the people present in the room at the moment that I deliver them (and before long I'll be writing articles and a dissertation and scholarly monographs that won't gain a readership any larger than that).
But here's the thing: I care more about the continued life and health of the constantly-fluctuating community
of people who gather together to consider and rejoice in the ways words matter than I care about having anything like a central role in that community. It's hard to tell people that the thing that you "make" for a living is something as intangible as "knowledge" or "a community" or "a spirit of rational inquiry" (god I am more of a student of the Enlightenment than I think I am). But these things need to be made. By which I mean both that humanity needs
them, and that they don't just spring up on their own. They must be sustained by the ongoing contributions of effort and energy that community members/human beings make, one by one, day by day.
And I've gotten into some pretty abstract philosophizing here in the process of making what is, to me (but often not to others), a simple point: my work as a grad student, and the work I'll do someday as a professor, is essentially creative
. Not just because I care about researching and writing papers whose arguments are inventive and unique and, in some ways, beautiful (though I do care about these things, and quite a lot!) -- not just because I produce tangible (if arcane) things -- but because I am part of the collective support system for something bigger than me, something that everyone who supports it is constantly involved in (re)creating.
(As a side note, I feel like a lot of what we think about when we think about "making things" has to do with distinctly individual authorship -- this is certainly the case with books -- and this is increasingly a problem for me, because I really do want to emphasize the communal role of the work I do, the impossibility of doing this work or of this work having meaning outside of a community. And that means giving up some of my own authority as sole agent of creation. That also, however, lets me change my definition of what "counts" as creative in a way that has been incredibly rewarding for me personally.)
In other news: I also baked things today! I am basically working my way happily through the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, and finally got around to making chocolate chip brioche pretzel rolls
(yes, you heard me). Warning: if you attempt these yourself, watch your KitchenAid while it's mixing -- I think the dough is actually way too heavy to be properly mixed for 10 mins straight (as it's supposed to be at one point). My KitchenAid started massively overheating and some other people's actually broke. So do the 10 mins in shorter intervals, and be prepared to knead a bit with your hands. Still: totally deliciously worth it! [picture