Creative Identity: Discovering Imprints
If you, me, and Beyoncé sat down to make a birdhouse (with exactly the same materials) we’d end up with three undeniably different birdhouses. Mine? Mine would have a hinge to make the squirrels fall off. It would have some corn cobs soaked in tequila, so I could watch drunken squirrels drop out of trees. And I’d make a few nets, so the drunk squirrels wouldn’t die.
I don’t know what Beyoncé’s birdhouse would be like, or yours. Maybe you’d have tiny purple feather beds. Maybe you’d engineer a water collection system with whittled grooves in the roof. Maybe you’d decorate the walls with burn marks and ash.
We each pull from different places when we need to make stuff. It’s the place inside of us that gets activated when we’re building something (a treehouse, a sandwich, a soap bubble). I pull from a place inside myself that’s made of rain. It’s made of Harry Potter and fresh meringue. It plays “Nightswimming” by REM.
When my students get my assignment entitled “100 Things I Notice,” they are always incredulous. I’ve revamped the instructions three times. It never helps. The current iteration looks like this:
“What if we can’t think of 100 things?” they say.
“Then walk someplace new,” I say.
“One hundred?! One hundred things?!” they say.
“Yup,” I say.
“Does it have to be sentences or can it just be one word?”
“One word is fine, sentences are fine,” I say.
“Why are we doing this?”
“I’ll tell you after,” I say.
What they don’t realize is that all I’ll be looking for is a pattern, and there is always a pattern. In every list. Every list centers on something or keeps returning to something. One student kept writing down objects that could be filled with things (1. Flower pots 2. Beer bottle 3. Easter baskets 4. Backpack). One student noticed anything uneven, broken, or “off” (1. Pavement cracked 2. Pencil sharpener is broken 3. Painting is crooked.) One student noticed pregnancy and motherhood. Another, nature (and her god’s place in it). It is my favorite time of the semester. I get to reveal something about students to themselves. I can’t tell them the “why” of the pattern, or where it originates. But I can definitely prove that it’s there.
The patterns in these lists are signposts to a creative identity. They tell you something about the place you pull from when you need to create. It’s no accident that the student who notices broken/off things is going into computer programming. He’s got an eye for programming mistakes. The student that notices vessels? Baskets and bowls and vases? She’s studying to be an English teacher. Her future students stand like baskets of open space ready to be filled with prose.
Creative identities are like belly buttons for three reasons: 1. Everyone’s got one. 2. They’re unforgivably wacky. And 3. They’re both related to scars. You didn’t have any say over the shape of your belly button. You just got the one you got. And no one can tell you it’s wrong. Your creative self is a collection of imprints that tether you to some truth about who you are. Saying it’s wrong is like yelling at a shoe for making a footprint in the snow. Footprints are what happen when you walk in the snow. Imprints are what happen when you live a life.
Craft Identity: Learning How to Make the Thing
One of the coolest things a person can do in this world is to learn the craft of making a thing. Maybe you want to learn how to cook a pancake. Maybe you want to learn how to fix a muffler. Maybe you want to learn how to throw pots on a wheel or write a perfectly metered sonnet. The craft identity is also a learning identity.
It’s worth noting that you have way more control over your craft identity than your creative identity. You can’t really control the depth and breadth of an imprint on your heart, but you can totally learn how to make a pancake.
Step 1: Define the Pancake
You find that for a pancake to be a pancake, it must be fluffy, warm, and semisweet.
Step 2: Seek Pancake Models and Makers
You watch your mom. You gather recipes. You observe YouTube chefs. You talk to your local club of pancake enthusiasts and devote yourself to online pancake forums.
Step 3: Try and Fail, Fail Better
Keeping the original pancake definition in mind, you make many pancakes. Each attempt is sacred because it informs the next attempt.
Step 4: Pancake with Style
When you’ve achieved the pancake you set out to achieve, you then consider how to make it yours. Look to your creative identity. It is there, perhaps, that you will find the need for sprinkles.
(There are those among us who are drawn to pick something that doesn’t exist yet. A flying soap bar. Yarn that sings. These crafters are also inventors.)
Business Identity: Sending Messages in Bottles
I once sent a message in a bottle to a press that I’m still in love with. I never heard back, but I’m proud of the attempt. Sending writing out should be like sending a message in a bottle. You identify a part of yourself that is precious, and you painstakingly coax it to the paper. You roll it tightly and place it into a vessel designed to hold and protect. You walk to the shore of a river, place the bottle in the water, and let go.
It’s a ritual. And it’s ours. And no one can tell me that it isn’t sacred.
The press that I’m in love with? I sent them something for a contest. I knew it was silly to think that I would win, but something in me just knew. This press spoke my language. Their weird was my weird. They valued women, and fearlessness, and talking about what’s gross. And when I got the form letter rejection, I was crushed. For days. And then I wrote the first draft of this essay.
I don’t know what the formula is for commercial success. I’m not sure I even know the shape of the questions. I hear things like “Is it in conversation with the things that came before?” and “Does it fit with the historical moment?” “Will it sell?” and “What does the market research indicate?”
My students often ask me how likely it is that they’ll be successful writers (or actors, or directors). And I always find a way to guide the conversation towards, “What do you love about doing that thing? Awesome! Here are resources that will help you keep being able to do that.” I’m nefariously trying to shift their focus from the thing they can’t control (commercial success) to the thing they can: how to keep doing a thing they love. To quote Amy Poehler, “The doing of the thing is the thing.”
I don’t know where you are, reader, or where you want to go. But I hope you’ll remember that your birdhouse, your pancakes, and your belly button have value. Even if you never take a class and you never submit your work, even if you never share your pancakes with anyone and you hide your birdhouse from the world, the act of making it is sacred. There are those among us (call us the Belly Button Watchers) who recognize the devastating value of creating. Make things, reader. Even if no one sees it. I see you. I love you. And I love the stuff you make.