The Artist's Identity: How to Let Go
Written by Natalia Knowlton
Whenever I talk to my mom about my writing (which I don’t do often), she brings up J.K. Rowling (Disclaimer: I'm a fan of Harry Potter, not of J.K. Rowling's transphobia).
Before Pandemic: “Why don’t you write a successful children’s book like Harry Potter?!”
Now: “If J.K. Rowling could write Harry Potter as a single mom on benefits, you can do it too. Use your struggle to write.”
Ah yes, the struggling artist trope, but if suffering were the fuel to creativity, then why is it so hard to create in the middle of a pandemic?
As I thought of the many possible answers to that question, I came across this quote from Brian Logan’s article (The Guardian) on the state of theatre at the moment:
“It’s not just artists’ jobs that have evaporated, it’s their identities – which, without work, can start to feel very brittle. To have no income is bad; to have no role or purpose in the so-called new normal is worse.”
This quote perfectly summarises how I've been feeling; I don't mind working in another industry for a year or two while theatre is on hiatus, if anything I embrace this opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and grow. But the thought of not making theatre makes me feel helpless and like a part of my identity is missing.
This mentality feels slightly irrational as I will go back to working in theatre (whenever that might be) and I'm not going to stop being who I am while theatres are closed.
So why is so much of my worth placed on my identify as an artist? Is it healthy to identity so strongly as an artist?
What Does it Mean to Identify with a Label?
“The word ‘identification’ is derived from the Latin word idem, meaning ‘same’ and facere, which means ‘to make.’ So when I identify with something, I ‘make it the same.’ The same as what? The same as I. I endow it with a sense of self, and so it becomes part of my ‘identity.’” Eckhart Tolle
Without getting too philosophical, by identifying with a label it ultimately limits who we can be; when we stop doing the activity that the label is associated with, it can feel like a part of us is missing.
Why do I identify as an artist? "Artistic" isn't a unique personality trait; children are a prime example of how we all started off as creative beings with the need to create stories to make sense of the world. To create is as human as eating, sleeping and procrastinating. Those of us who choose to identify with the label were probably encouraged by our parents and teachers to do so, resulting in us building a career and making money from it (or trying to at least, thanks capitalism).
Even though I have chosen a career in playwriting because I love (and need) to create stories for the stage, my worth doesn’t lie in my work. My creative practice is important to me but it’s not the most important aspect about me, I have other great (and not so great) qualities that make me who I am. So why do I treat it like it’s the only thing I have and like I’m nothing without it?
Giving Up a Label
Like many theatre artists, I got into theatre through acting. I started my theatre degree in the hope of becoming an actor but quickly realised, mainly through feedback from my teachers, that I wasn't 'talented' so I stopped trying to be one. Thankfully my theatre degree wasn’t specialised so I could focus on other disciplines like devising, playwriting, directing and dramatic theory.
The minute I let go of the ‘actor’ label, it called me back like a toxic ex. I started getting A’s in my acting classes and I actually started enjoying the performing aspect of my devising classes. Ever since university, I have continued performing in devised work and traditional plays on occasion, if the project appeals to me.
I don’t identify as an actor, not in the traditional sense, mainly because I'm not making it a career. But acting/performing is another art form in my toolbox that I occasionally use to express myself; it gives me something that I don’t get from writing or devising. What if this is a healthier approach to labels?
Do the Verb, Quit the Noun
I’m not exactly ready to give up on the ‘writer’ label the same way I did with 'actor'. But I am trying to focus less on being a writer, and more on the act of writing. Austen Kleon encourages to "forget the noun, do the verb" (although I prefer saying "quit the noun").
When I’m worried about being a writer, I think: What will my career look like after this? Will my writing still be relevant? Will anyone program my work?
But when I’m focused on the writing, my focus shifts to: How can I make this script stronger? What can I read or watch to inspire me to write today? What can I do to facilitate my writing this week? I’m more focused on the present and less on the future.
In her TED talk, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about how we’ve internalised the notion that “creativity and suffering are somehow inherently linked and that artistry in the end will always ultimately lead to anguish.”
She goes on to talk about how people in ancient Rome believed that an artist had a genius, instead of being a genius. They saw creativity as a divine being, a spirit that visited humans to ultimately use them to create a masterpiece. This meant that if a work of art was brilliant, the artist couldn’t take full credit because their genius had helped them. If the work was bad, then the artist could blame it on their genius for not showing up that day.
This is another way of saying create the art, don’t be the artist. It’s a heavy burden that no one needs.
Closing Yourself Off
When I look back on my life, I see that I’ve closed myself to a lot of opportunities because I held on for dear life to the “artist” label.
In high school, I took pride in being bad at science, math and gym because I was an artist. I spent most of my 20’s comfortable in my theatre bubble, rolling my eyes at anyone who wasn’t an artist or didn’t share my views or lifestyle.
As I get older, I want to talk to more people who aren’t in theatre or aren’t even artists themselves. I want to hear opinions that I don’t usually agree with, not because I’m “less radical with age” but because I want to challenge my own views. Remind myself of what I believe in and what matters to me. Sometimes we gain something valuable from the people we least expect.
From an activist/ally point of view, the most important work we can do is to talk to the people we don't agree with and who we'd rather not associate with. When we label ourselves and strongly identify with one belief system, we label others as well, and leave little room for nuance, complexity and the ability to change.
So where does this leave me? Here’s what I know: my name is Natalia and I love karaoke, Keanu Reeves and playing The Sims. Sometimes I write, sometimes I perform, sometimes I produce my own work. Sometimes I do none of the above and I’m still me.