Consuming vs. Producing

by Peter Saint-Andre


During my Open Reading interview with Sal Inglima a few months ago, I mentioned my opinion that producing poetry is more fulfilling than reading poetry. Although this is an opinion that it might be best for me to let go of, before doing so I'd like to generalize and expand on the idea.

I suppose it boils down to the modern cliché that life is not a spectator sport. Yet some might question that notion: mightn't it be more fun to, say, witness the Super Bowl in person than to play a game of pickup flag football in your neighborhood park, or hear a masterful performance of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto than to struggle with learning to play the violin with a local teacher? I sense a few separate considerations:

  1. Skill Levels: Someone who has truly mastered a skill such as writing poetry or playing guitar will perform far above my level in those pursuits, even though I've dabbled in them for most of my life. Yet I find it inspiring, not depressing, to encounter such mastery: it gives me something to strive for and learn from in my own efforts.
  2. Passive vs. Active: In these days of "content" (how I loathe that word!), we're all encouraged to "consume" what's thrown in front of us by algorithms and marketing machines. Yet consuming content is essentially passive. By contrast, as Aristotle realized long ago, living is doing. We weren't made for passivity, but for activity.
  3. Pleasure vs. Fulfillment: Hearing a great concert might light up every one of my ears' pleasure centers, but there is something especially satisfying about understanding a craft from the inside and enacting it through my own efforts. For instance, even my halting efforts to learn the Bach Cello Suites have given me a much stronger appreciation for these great works of art.
  4. Appreciation and Engagement: A true aficianado or connoisseur of a given craft is emotionally, spiritually, even ethically committed to knowing all about it. Sometimes that involves pursuing the craft (say, learning to draw), other times that involves becoming deeply familiar with its theory and history (say, studying art history). At this level, "consuming" is no longer passive but is transformed into an active engagement or appreciative encounter with the craft and its most proficient practitioners.

These reflections indicate that we don't need to choose exclusively between producing and consuming. Anyone who cares deeply about a given domain of human endeavor will do both with correspondingly deep passion: you can't become a better writer if you don't regularly read great literature, a better musician if you don't have what the jazz players call "big ears", a better athlete if you're not a student of the game, and so on. At the highest level, we might observe that the true greats aren't merely passionate but obsessive. However, that's a topic for a separate post...

(Cross-posted at


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