The struggle with creative identity

Last week I met with a group of 13 moms to talk about “Designing Your Writing Life as a Mom”. I was struck by the disconnect many of the mothers were experiencing around their creative identity, which is something many writers struggle with, parents or not.

Observations about creative identity

Here’s what I noticed about creative identity through talking with these moms and working with writers through my Writer’s Circle. And certainly the question of creative identity is not specific to writers, either, it translates across all forms of creative expression.

  1. When you aren’t owning your creative identity, you can feel out of step with yourself, like you neither belong here nor there. This is about not being in touch with a sense of thinking of yourself as a “writer” or an “artist” yet — or ever. (Some people don’t like labels of any kind, but that’s not quite what we’re talking about here.) It’s about having a deep sense of inner rightness connected to how you think of your answer to the question, “Who am I?”
  2. Coming to terms with your identity as an artist or writer can require dealing with old expectations and limiting beliefs about what it means to be creative. Sometimes, I find that these thoughts and beliefs revolve around negative perceptions of creativity as flaky and ungrounded. Sometimes this can also mean letting go of expectations — and previous self-incarnations — of wild and prolific creativity, especially when faced with Real Life challenges (like parenting, care giving, careers, and day jobs).
  3. As a culture we tend to diminish or devalue writing and creativity, so sometimes we resist calling ourselves by those identities. We’re afraid to be laughed at or seen as not being serious by our peers in “real” jobs.
  4. As a culture we tend to also exalt creative expression only for certain types of artists or writers (usually “talented” or “successful” in a certain way), and we feel ashamed to try to claim our creative identity “too soon.” I see this a lot in the debate about when we can consider ourselves “real” writers. Do we have to be published first? Do we have to be paid first? Many writers, including me, feel that if we’re writing regularly we can call ourselves writers. I see this showing up when people say, “I am a struggling writer” or “I am a wannabe writer.”
  5. Going through a major life transition can challenge your creative identity, like motherhood, major loss, career change, or divorce. I imagine this challenge could come in a good sense — helping us more fully claim our identities — or in more challenging one, where we lose all sense of ourselves and can’t seem to find our way back. Often this comes about when we make a transition from one career to another (even if it’s from one creative career to another). When I became a coach and left my urban design work behind, it took a long time to feel like a coach. When I became a writer as well as a coach, it took another solid chunk of time to transition into seeing myself as a writer.

Identity challenges coming out of an MFA program

One thing that also struck me when I listened to the mothers the other day was about how many of them had been through MFA programs and then into motherhood and now weren’t writing. I suspect there are a few components to that process. In the first place, an MFA program can be an extremely intense phase of writing time — even binge-writing — which can be quite exhausting and requires time to recover from. I can still remember how finishing graduate school myself felt like hitting a brick wall — intense action followed by a sudden, total full stop that left me adrift, much in the way a rushing river spilling out into a lake or ocean suddenly loses its force.

There’s also a major shift in community. One writer I interviewed about going through an MFA program said, “There is a sense of loss in leaving an MFA program. You’re surrounded by people who really care about writing, and then when you leave, you need to find a way to get continued support for your writing, and it’s not easy.”

On top of that, while an MFA program can be about becoming a writer in a very real sense, the focus is primarily on craft, and not so much on developing a consistent writing practice. My interviewee commented, “When I graduated, it was like I reentered the ‘real world’ and realized that, while I’d no doubt become a better writer, I hadn’t developed consistent, sustainable writing habits, which was about learning a whole new skill.” So it’s easy to imagine that writers coming out of an intense program might suddenly feel at a loss about how to continue — and even start to wonder who they are as their entire foundation changes.

Next time we’ll talk more about how to reclaim your identity as an artist or writer if you’ve lost it or you’re struggling to claim it.

Thanks for reading!

As always, we love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Warmly,

 Jenna

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Comments

  1. ‘Gifted’ was the label the educational system placed on me but it felt too restrictive. I’ve always thought of myself as creative and explored arts and music at different times. But writing is the one thing that was always there, the one thing that gave me stability. Without it I’m not sure my other creative endeavors would matter. To borrow a phrase, it’s the spine of my personal story.

  2. Sean says:

    That first one jumped right out at me. I have been unable to establish the feel of a writer. I have been told i am good at it, but i dont feel its an identity at least not yet. I keep wondering if i went with this online college that i would change that. Because id have a foundation to lean on. I guess ill only know that though when the time is right.

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