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Douglas Eby : Identity and Creating

Identity and Creating

By Douglas Eby

Engaging in a creative venture often brings up questions and uncertainties related to personal identity: Am I qualified? Do I have enough experience, strength, talent, skill? Will the work be good enough? Will I be good enough?

Creative expression is based on both our inner selves and our abilities, so maybe it is inevitable we question both our self concept and talents.

But our insecurities and doubts may not be just a matter of objective competence. For example, two actors noted for being able to create distinctive and powerful characters have made revealing comments about their own identities. The late Peter Sellers once said, "If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do. I do not know who or what I am." And Jennifer Jason Leigh has claimed, "As a person, I don't really register that much. Director Robert Altman says that as a person I disappear in a way."

Feelings about identity can drive creative projects. Painter Laura Molina says on her website, "I feel the need to assert my identity in the most militant way possible... As an educated, native-born, English-speaking, fifth generation Mexican-American and a feminist, there is almost no reflection of me in the movies or television, which is almost as bad as being stereotyped."

Stifling a need to create, on the other hand, can leave "a small hole in the fabric of our self-esteem" as Gloria Steinem puts it. Not creating can also be a path to depression, according to psychologist Eric Maisel among others.

Saying we "can't" write, paint, perform on stage, develop a new medical test or create in some other way is in effect not giving ourselves "permission."

The sense of inability may be based on some outside standard of what a "real" creative person is, or relates to being a "failure" at doing something creative. Getting beyond or "bypassing" intellectual restrictions on our creativity can be a matter of shifting one's attitudes and unrealistic standards.

This idea of an outside authority for what we must be in order to create can be potently self-limiting. Almost any craft or artform has some collection of criteria for what makes it work, what makes it good. But creative people in any field often bend or even break those rules.

The common feeling of being a fraud, inadequate, an impostor, is something many of us have experienced to some degree in trying to realize our creative talents.

Director Jane Campion, esteemed for "The Piano" and other films, has admitted, "I never have had the confidence to approach filmmaking straight on. I just thought it was something done by geniuses, and I was very clear that I wasn't one of those."

It may be especially challenging for someone who has gained esteem, acknowledgment and identity in a field not considered "creative" when they want to pursue a more recognizably creative project.

But it isn't just a matter of self-concept; there are social pressures that can make defining our identity difficult. Creativity coach Dave Storer, one of the contributors to the book "Inspiring Creativity" (edited by Rick Benzel), writes that "most people in our culture will not let you easily claim a creator's identity. They will push against you and demand 'proof' of your creative talent."

He counsels to keep working at your chosen project anyway, and over time you will become comfortable with your identity, because it "comes from the doing of it."

Maybe our sense of identity is always fluid, and always unfinished. Many artists have commented that creating is not only a way to express their unique self to others, but is also a means to more fully understand and define who they are to themselves. •

© 2005 Douglas Eby

Douglas Eby is a writer and researcher about psychological aspects of creative expression and achievement. More »

7/20/05