What Are You Making?

I've been thinking a lot lately about doing and making and the difference between the two; how one seems to be for money, necessity, survival, while the other is for joy, for creation.

“What do you do?”

I've never understood that question, or rather I've never understood how people typically ask it not to find an answer, but an ending. Accountant. Got it. You do numbers. You're a numbers guy. That's who you are. Next.

At parties, in bars, on dates. What do you do? Who can I decide you are?

Because I usually want to know more, I ask people if they like what they do. That's where the interesting stories live, where the truth starts.

Once, on a date in New York, a real estate attorney looked confused when I asked this follow-up, like I had just inquired what kind of porn he was into before our drinks had arrived. "No one's ever asked me that before." No one's ever asked if you like what you do?

Turns out, he did not. I’d like to think my question changed his life, that he woke up the next morning, marched into his office and turned in his resignation, Jerry Maguire-style. I didn't realize until last night I don't like this, any of this.

I do not know if that happened though, because he also didn't like me.

I recently read “Big Magic,” Elizabeth Gilbert's book on creativity in which she talks about how humans are fundamentally creative animals; we were drawing on cave walls long before we were planting crops or building factories or being real estate attorneys. We can't help it; we doodle on a conference call or whistle in the shower or dance alone in our cars not because we're trying to be artists, but because art is what sneaks out when we're not paying attention.

I tore through Gilbert’s book in two days, and I probably would have finished it quicker if I hadn’t stopped after every other paragraph to read it aloud to David.

"Listen to this,” I’d say, and then we’d marvel at the wisdom and beauty in her reminding us that we love making things not because we’re special or different, but because we’re exactly like everyone else; along with stardust and an itch to know where we all come from, creativity is baked in. This is why feel better when we play with it and infinitely worse when we don’t.

As the high priestess Brené Brown says, “unused creativity is not benign. It metastasizes. It turns into grief, rage, judgment, sorrow, shame.” If you need proof, call me when I’ve gone a couple of days without writing, which is about the time I’m swerving through all five of those emotions seemingly at once and spending an irrational amount of time tending to our houseplants.

And so, I’d like to propose a better question the next time we’re getting to know someone: instead of asking them what they do, let’s ask each other what we’re making.

Sure, if you’re an accountant or a real estate attorney you’re probably making a bunch of spreadsheets or contracts, but unless those things fire up your soul, what else? Banana bread on the weekends? A sweater for your dog you’re learning how to knit? A short story about banana bread and a dog sweater?

What brings you joy when you’re making it and starts to gnaw at you the longer you’re away from it? What do you do that’s not for a paycheck or likes or anyone else, not even your kids?

What are you making?