Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Identity, Artistic and Otherwise

            The title of the second chapter of The Artist's Way is "Recovering a Sense of Identity."  So I guess this is part two of twelve on creativity.

            Most of the time I distrust the idea of identity.  Identity feels like a trap.  You tell yourself, "I'm the sort of person who..." and then you re-enact a behavior over and over again.  Say, I don't know, hurling yourself at romantic partners before knowing whether or not they have your best interests at heart.  (I know nothing about that.)  Then, when you decide you don't like the behavior's consequences anymore, you have to undo a sense of identity.  No small task.  But let's just say you achieve it.  You actually manage to change your deepest ideas about who you are.
            Congratulations.  Now you say, "I'm the sort of person who..."  Doesn't trust people?  Or, no, waits to get to know people really, really well and analyzes them with a therapist for years before you display any affection?  But now, what about the negative consequences of this identity?  How long before you decide it's time to change identities again?  I'm sure the correct answer is that you replace your old, defective identity with a new, perfectly well-adjusted version; someone who never smokes or drinks too much and always communicates clearly.
            Please, please post in the comments below if you or anyone you know displays these supposedly functional behaviors.
            "I am like this and this.  I am not like that or that."
            It's a curious mixture of reflection and willful ignorance.  To say that I am the sort of person who...jumps a little when I hear an ambulance siren...is to say that I have observed my body reacting a certain way when I hear an ambulance siren.  But rather than saying, "I notice that my body jumps a little when I hear an ambulance siren," I say that "I jump a little when I hear an ambulance siren."  Also, this particular reaction (which I've observed in myself since my accident this past summer), is really quite short-lived.  There's no reason to think that I went 32 years without displaying this behavior, and now it's suddenly a permanent part of who I am.
            I want to refrain from trying to sound too Buddhist here, mostly because I don't know enough about Buddhism to be more than a dabbler at this point.  But I will say that after relatively little experience with meditation, I'm pretty sure that 99% of who we think we are is made up.  Not just made up by us, either; made up by our societies, our families, our teachers and lovers and friends.  And perhaps more powerfully, by the gaps in our lives where those people should have been.
            At the same time, I notice that consciously working on a sense of identity can be extremely helpful as a writer.  American culture is none too kind to its artists, and to a certain extent you sort of have to repeat over and over to yourself that you're an artist, or poet, or composer, or whatever.
            But the catch is, I think, that it's only a starter.  I have been, since I started the Artist's Way this past summer, diligently returning again and again to affirmations.  I struggled with them initially, feeling they were corny, but then settled on a nice compromise with myself:  I never "affirm" anything that isn't true.  So, while Cameron at one point suggested writing something like "I am a prolific artist," I couldn't live with this phrase because even in my best moments I am not prolific.  If a female rabbit can theoretically produce as many as 800 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren in a single reproductive season (!!!), a female blue whale is more my pace:  one baby whale every two or three years.  I can't remember exactly what the phrase I settled on was, but I went with something like, "productive."
            But then, what if I'm ever not productive?  Given that I'm a woman of still-re-productive capacity, a several-year-long distraction might be in my future.  At that point, since I think it's silly to say things which aren't true, I guess I could just say to myself, "I'm open."  Can I affirm I'm a poet at that point?  Is it helpful to do so, when I see myself failing to live out the identity I'm insisting on because Julia Cameron told me to do it?
            I've mentioned baby-making a couple of times here, and I suppose it's on my mind.  Because in all honesty, if I ever do take that particular leap, I would like to set aside my "poet" identity for a little while.  It seems like insanity to be nursing a newborn and dealing with things like colic and ear infections and sleep problems and (I assume) a rapidly deteriorating romantic relationship while trying to write inspired poetry.  Maybe it would be better to stick to "mom" and hopefully "decent partner" for a little while.
            But can you set aside your identity like this?  So much of who I am seems to have been waiting for me at birth:  caucasian; female; introverted; intellectually driven (and distracted); heterosexual; American; even Christian, to a certain extent; and on and on.  Can I set aside being a poet?  In my experience, my inspiration makes me miserable every time I try to set it down, and this makes me wonder if I'm entirely wrong in thinking identity is self-made.
            Vocation is a lovely old word, a very Christian old word, and one I like very much.  "Spiritual path" conveys the same sense, but I think my agnostic and atheist friends have a vocation to reject everything I believe in and they'd bristle to hear their work referred to as spiritual.  (For all I know they'd bristle to hear me call their convictions a vocation; I beg them to extend Christian forgiveness to me.)
            Vocation means "calling."  As in, someone called you.  Presumably, someone who is not you.  All I can come up with when I look at Samuel is that maybe when the soul says, "Here am I," it doesn't get to know the path beforehand, doesn't even know the identity it's been called to.

1 comment:

  1. Good stuff again, Leigh. There are so many things to think about here, but the one that leaps out at me loudest is the practical identity test you have laid out: is a poet still a poet if she has young children and a partner and is struggling to keep up with things that are perhaps even more important than poetry?

    Maybe this is grabbing me because it's a huge part of my life history, being a parent and a writer at the same time. Or attempting to be.

    I suppose I cannot help but project from my own experience, my own choices, but I never put aside the writer's identity, even as I was whelmed with fatherhood. I beat myself up a lot, I despaired frequently, I treasured solitary writing time more than ever. But I did not put that identity aside. I couldn't.

    It was a mixed blessing that I realized nothing I wrote would ever be as great a creation as these boys. It's wonderful, and humbling, and a bit crushing.

    I had many moments where I said, "You have no right to call yourself a writer. A writer is a person who writes, which is something you're not doing." But I never said, "You're a guy who works at a computer company to make enough money to feed your kids, and that's all."

    Perhaps that would have been a harsh but true thing to say about myself. But I doubt it. I don't think I was clinging to an identity I made up just to survive.

    When I look back on it, I realize that I was dealing with different vocations that were in conflict with each other. My gifts were clashing. I had these great kids who were imbedded in my heart, who were better people that I was, and I had talent, frustratingly undeveloped, and it was my job to make sure I was a good steward of both. And everything else. Somehow.

    I do think some people make up an identity for the wrong reasons. I've seen it. One of my greatest fears is that I've done that very thing. My comfort is that people who have not done this thing still have the same doubts.

    And maybe that's the thing that keeps us all on edge, uncontented, unresolved: we never really know.