The Difficulty Writers Have with Identity

Beheaded FaceThe essence of creativity is flow. Creative energy is a fluid, dynamic force that lights us on fire, loves to play with illusion, and changes shape in the blink of an eye. To truly tap into deep creativity, we must embrace and welcome transformation.

But this is harder than it sounds for most of us, who are also human and naturally resistant to change.

Our culture doesn’t make it any easier. We tend to latch onto identities—whether ours or someone else’s—and we become agitated when those identities begin to shift. We like to think of ourselves and the people in our family as a certain age, and we panic when we all start getting older. We feel comfortable adopting certain beliefs and when evidence pushes us to change our mind, we feel like the rug has been pulled out from under us.

Every one of us has an idea of who we are on the surface. Who we would vote for, how we would handle a particular situation, what we like to eat, wear, watch, and read.

This is our attempt to assemble and maintain a fixed identity. We do this because it helps us to orient ourselves in the world.

But in the realm of creativity all bets are off. And our attachment to a fixed identity can hinder us from creating our best work.

We see this in the case of super successful writers whose fans complain that their work has gone downhill after years and years of topping the bestseller lists. Because their audience has certain expectations about what type of books they should write (only horror or only spy thrillers) they have a difficult time letting their creativity bubble and splash and flow into whatever new outlet they might need as they change and grow as creative beings.

Writers in particular fall prey to clinging onto a fixed identity because the act of being a writer carries a whole world of emotional baggage with it. It’s not like being a dental hygienist. Writers frequently feel very strongly attached to their writer identity from childhood up. They idolize other writers and dream of fulfilling their own personal writing destiny, of being the writer hero they would want to read and adore.

This is taken one step further when you finally figure out your genre. As a writer, it feels like one of those ah-ha life moments that changes everything. Finally, you know where you belong and you have an inkling of who might want to read your stuff.

So when you come to a place where you’re confronted with a creative fork in the road, it can be scary. What if you’ve written sci-fi for ten years now but you don’t want to write it anymore? What if you’re a hard-nosed nonfiction writer who’s always secretly felt the calling to write poetry? Or what if you’re writing something completely different from anything you’ve ever written before, and you have no idea what it is, or what it might turn out to be?

These kinds of questions mess with our sense of fixed identity. It feels much safer to keep on doing just what we’ve always done, without the risk of changing things up and opening ourselves up to the possibility of disappointment or failure.

But creativity demands more of us. To keep our creative fountain going strong, we have to take risks. We have to keep exploring the unknown landscapes of our own souls. We have to be willing to leave the safe paths we mowed years ago and push through the dark magical forest.

Once upon a time, you couldn’t wait to run away into that forest. As a constantly evolving creative being, it’s your duty throughout life to push yourself to do it again and again.

If you enjoyed this article, you might want to check out:

How to Radically Boost Your Creativity and Self-Esteem in Five Minutes

Why You Should Stop Listening to Other Writers

The Dark Side of Being a Writer

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10 Comments

  • Reply hilarycustancegreen 10 September, 2014 at 9:39 am

    You are quite right. I tend to imagine that my identity is fluid. As a younger woman in a social situation I would think what role am I in today – a sculptor, a mother, or an archivist’s wife? But as you suggest we have a surface image of ourselves that we do not willingly relinquish. Food for thought.

  • Reply Catherine North 10 September, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    This is so interesting! My first three novels were children’s fantasy, written in a fairy-tale style and featuring wizards and mermaids and heroes. I loved writing them, but a few years ago I realised I really wanted to write literary fiction with adult content and darker themes. It was a pretty dramatic change in style and voice, and what I’m writing now scares me, whereas the early stuff never did. I suspect this is a good thing though!

  • Reply Kathy Palm 10 September, 2014 at 2:27 pm

    Follow that path into the forest of creativity! Yea! I am a fantasy writer, but am headed down the rocky road of horror. O.O It’s so much fun. 🙂

  • Reply Setsu 10 September, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    I feel so at odds with this! There’s so much pressure to develop a platform — an expertise — so that you are “the fashion author” or “the gritty crime author” or “the kids’ horror author.” To have a message and a goal. To have that fixed identity so that readers can find and connect with you based on established channels of marketing. It chafes.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 10 September, 2014 at 3:53 pm

      I totally get it. That’s why I mentioned that finding your genre feels like that “ah-ha” life moment. What I’m really addressing in this post is how sometimes we feel like we can’t write a certain way or do a certain thing because it doesn’t jive with the idea of our fixed identity.

      I think writers should definitely have a message and a goal. It’s our map to get where we’re going! But we should also have the freedom to change up our route any time we feel like it 😉

  • Reply Jon Simmonds 12 September, 2014 at 5:30 am

    I agree wholeheartedly with the exhortation to branch out and follow different paths, but there’s the added complexity of audience-building. While we all spend so much time and effort creating our platforms and networks, we’re investing in targeting a specific audience. One which will hopefully be in tune with what we write and subsequently turn into book-buyers. A swift change in direction runs the risk of jettisoning these hard-won followers and having to start the slog all over again. As an apposite example, my first book is a contemporary urban mystery, while the second will be a children’s book (or what would be horrifically termed YA I guess). It’s a creative decision and one I’m determined to stick by for the pleasure of writing what I want – but it has some significant ramifications on my current marketing effort.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 12 September, 2014 at 9:57 am

      Very good points Jon! I’ve heard from both sides of the fence this week on this blog post and it’s so interesting. Lots of food for thought when it comes to building audience, figuring out your platform, marketing yourself, etc.

  • Reply Paul Sutton Reeves 13 September, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    This was a thought-provoking piece, Lauren. Sticking to the tried and tested is the surest route to stagnation for a writer but suits the purposes of ‘marketability’. Changing and taking risks obviously makes it harder for a writer’s style and identity to be pinned down, but it’s something I admire in authors. Julian Barnes is far from my favourite novelist but I do admire his ability to write novels that are very different from one another. The same is true of Michael Frayn, whose novels I have enjoyed.

  • Reply Justin Meckes 15 September, 2014 at 7:35 am

    I feel pressure to the most narrow degree. I have written a few books in the same genre and have decided that one will be more popular than others based on the protagonist or the setting. I’m writing for an audience, but recently someone said this to me: “Why don’t you write the book you want to write?”

    That’s what you’re saying, Lauren. Thanks.

  • Reply Judith Post 30 September, 2014 at 4:53 pm

    Good blog post. I watched two of my favorite authors spread their wings and try something new, and when their fans smacked them down and complained, they went back to what they were famous for. But the spark wasn’t there, and it showed. It’s a fine line, having a career and trying new things. When you don’t give yourself permission to grow, though, that eventually shows, too.

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