In 2002 Kurt Vonnegut gave a speech in southern Michigan to the graduating class of Albion College. Most of what he said that day ended up being included in his memoir, A Man Without A Country, which I absolutely recommend reading. But, I’m going to pull out two phrases and one point which I think he crafted just beautifully.
Indulge me and jump to about the 5:55 mark in this video and stick around for two minutes or so. He’ll start off with a joke, but it will build the context for the two quotes that I’ll pull below.
So many people think that practicing an art is a way to make a living, is a good way to make a living. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake.
He then gives the audience a homework assignment. He asks them to write a poem, as best they can, show it to no one and then destroy it. And here’s what he expects will happen:
And you will find out, you have been rewarded, big time. This came out of you! This is the act of creativity. The hell with fame, the hell with money, you created this.
Looking a little closer and using the VTPE1 we can come to the conclusion that Kurt was leading us to.
if art = soul growth and making things = art then making things = soul growth
There are a lot of different ways that we can spend our time and I won’t be declaring that I understand life well enough to tell anyone how to spend theirs. But, I will write that I do not believe Kurt was wrong here. You will not be disappointed in spending a few minutes, or even a few hours, making something. The reward that we get, as human beings, from making things is undeniable and universal.
The best argument that I can grasp to support that universality is how much creating we all do as children. When unencumbered and encouraged, we were creating-machines. We colored any wax-able surface and constructed forts on anything fort-bearing. But, for so many of us, this making slows down as we age.
I have a simple, two-step plan to remedy that:
- Make things again.
- Give them to people.
The second step incentivizes the first. Our organic desire to create may wane over the years, but in that same time our connections to people have grown. We’ve figured out, in own ways, what friendship is, and what respect is, and what love is. And with those books on our shelves, unfinished as they may always be, we can make fantastic things.2
Sometimes, after making something, if you’re comfortable with it (and sometimes even if you’re not), give it to someone. Because, as human as making things is, its humanity pales next to making things for another person. Giving a gift is another, perfectly wonderful way to make your soul grow. So, here’s what I’m positing as an addendum to Kurt’s proof:
if making things = soul growth and giving things to people = soul growth then making things and giving them to people = soul growth x 2
That’s two times the soul growth for the maker-giver. Plus, the net soul gain for the receiver.3
Write someone something, draw someone something, or sing someone something. Make anyone anything. But, sometimes, give it to them. Choose the something and the someone appropriately or inappropriately. Choose so that it’s easy, or that it’s hard, or that it’s unexpected.4 You will get a reward from both the making and the giving. You will get to give a brand new part of yourself that is distinct and that was made just for another person. You will get to be reminded that you can still make new parts of yourself. All of that will be inside this thing that you made.
So, make things and give them to people.
It’s twice the soul growth. At least.
Vonnegut Transitive Property of Equality ↩︎
Like this, and this, and this, or this. ↩︎
I haven’t really tried to quantify this, but it’s almost certainly positive. ↩︎
That’s my personal favorite. ↩︎