Kill Your Categories
“Kill your darlings,” writers advise each other. That is, don’t fear waving farewell to a cherished phrase or passage which doesn’t actually serve your work-in-progress. Perhaps we all—whether maker or appreciator—should adopt a new creed. “Kill your categories.”
A transatlantic trip from my small Missouri college to London one spring break made a series of introductions. The devotion of the saints expressed through architecture; Guinness descending from the tap of a centuries-old alley bar; strange shades of green revealed and blurred into being as the English countryside rushed outside a train’s windows.
Least, though not insignificant, the music of The Flaming Lips. My friend and host casually pressed play on the 2002 album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots while we lounged, and I grew transfixed. The temperature in the room changed as Wayne Coyne sang the ballads of Yoshimi, a fictional Japanese teen wielding hope against the titanic odds posed by would-be overlords.
Nothing prepared me to hear that song cycle. No frame existed. Up to that point, concept albums turned me off; science fiction often left me cold. Strains of psychedelic rock—similar to those the Lips traffic in—struck me as unserious, elevating good vibrations over more reverent, authentic songcraft.
Curiosity killed my categories.
Yet here I was, sitting in a friend’s cramped London bedroom, awash in neon pinks, deep purples, and saturated blues. More orthodox trac
ks like “Do You Realize??”—where Coyne’s confessions of beauty are delivered with a rare weary wonder—sparked awe. But so did the deep cuts, with their filthy rich basslines, shimmering cosmic signals, and peculiar plot twists.
Nothing in my life to date suggested I might go for songs with titles such as “One More Robot/Sympathy 3000-21” or “Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell.” Yet I left the room rooting for Yoshimi.
Seeking televised preoccupation 15 years later, I logged into Netflix and rolled the dice on David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. After several rewatches, it’s possible I’ve never loved a series more.
Every detail of Lynch’s small-town murder mystery conspired to convert me. Angelo Badalamenti’s opening theme, where synthesizers console a noir-ish guitar riff. Dale Cooper’s fundamental goodness. Deputy Andy piercing propriety with honest tears. Cup after cup of midnight black coffee. And oh those Douglas firs.
My adoration again made little to no sense. Lynch shakes melodrama, absurd humor, and body horror together in a staggering cocktail; none of those ingredients alone ever satisfied me. But taken together, in his gathering of the mystical and depraved, the sincerely outlandish and outlandishly sincere, I recognized myself. I carried no lens through which to watch Twin Peaks—except pure curiosity.
Today my bedside, bookshelves, and music cabinet bear such strange objects. Strange, at least, to previous versions of myself. I chase Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown, a formally inventive novel about prejudice, performance, and kung fu with William Carlos Williams’ Paterson, a book-length poem that transposes a wild consciousness into the middle of New Jersey.
Now, this path seems as true as any other—not due to some keen sensibility or taste, but because no story is off-limits. Curiosity killed my categories.
Categories matter in their way. They tether the art we absorb to a time and place, to enveloping traditions and context clues like little revelations. But categories die at the level of determination; buzzwords or labels that wave off certain stories—and certain storytellers—must go.
The heart redefines its desires and the head redraws the horizons when we daily perform the simple act of staying open.
Once I needed the definition, the sanctuary experienced within set boundaries. Identifying as a particular sort of person with a certain class of loves carries the impression of freedom. But where the fence line ends, so does the ability to explore. The heart redefines its desires and the head redraws the horizons when we daily perform the simple act of staying open.
The wild within and without us grows when we remain curious. Loving something or someone that makes no sense on the paper of our past exponentially increases our chances of living surprised and satisfied.
One story makes space for another; little corners of creation peel back to reveal what lies beyond and beneath. The generosity cuts paths everywhere, room to fall in love over and over without end. We find ourselves available to embrace any and every sort of person as they create and cultivate and gesture toward the face of God. After all, curiosity lies next to holiness. Stories hover across the earth—which is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.
And curiosity points back at us; we emerge as people our younger selves would have little framework for understanding. Kill your categories to let your curiosity live.