Reconciling Creative Identities

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Bundles of charcoal sticks, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Stephhzz

Today I would like to talk about academic creativity in the context of multiple creative identities. An increasing number of academic researchers, myself included, do not have an academic identity in the singular. Rather, there is a bundle of identities: researcher, freelancer, tutor, writer, creative, administrator, and so on, that we draw on to live our lives. The list of potential identities is endless. What I would like the suggest today is that identities, like ideas, work better when they are reconciled. Feelings of guilt, underachievement, confusion, or alienation can result when we feel out of balance.

If someone wants to express themselves creatively as a researcher, is it irrelevant that they are also creatively motivated as, say, a fiction writer? An editor? These are more obvious links, but the potential list of identities is endless. Preparation through practice and time to think through identities can yield interesting results: those with a creative writing degree. for example, have bound their identities as author and scholar together. Those in the US who have graduated from MFA (Master of Fine Arts) courses before undertaking a PhD understand that being a poet, or a writer, or a creative of another stripe can be part and parcel of being a researcher. Those who have completed double degrees have struck out in different and yet complementary directions, and their future lives are better for it. Certain topics of research lend themselves to synthesis more readily than others, it is true. And yet, I think it is fair to say that an exercise in reconciliation is good not only for one’s work, but also for one’s overall happiness.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, finding yourself through research improves scholarship, but also cultivates the self. Tightening the bundle that is one’s identities gives them strength, but also consolidates energy, identity, and motivation. In a world of uncertainties—a difficult academic job market, a generation of drifting millennials, an increasingly atomised work life replete with tasks and ad hoc gig economy activities—it has become increasingly crucial to find happiness not in one thing that we do, but in all of them as a whole. Passions need not be partitioned: they can be combined. Sometimes a wonderful job appears that reconciles passions—I know someone who combined over a decade’s experience in editing with a passion for clothes-making to become editor of a sewing magazine—but sometimes it takes a lot of work to identify synergies between identities.

The stakes are high. To neglect the integration of creative identities is to neglect the wholeness of the heart, to put it a little fancifully. Although some find comfort in partitioning themselves, there must also be a core wellspring of motivation that drives life. To be divided between passions is to dissipate energy. Balance is key to a happy life, but the combination of reconciled faculties, creative drives, and abilities brings something more than balance. It brings self-understanding.

What does this mean in practical terms for those seeking to enhance their creativity? This goes beyond writing or research alone, since we live in an era when all of us will be called upon to be many things, and the notion of a traditional career is looking very shaky, if not defunct. The gig economy will likely grow and this new reality, while disruptive to traditional academic notions of career, achievement, behaviour, interpersonal interaction and self-presentation, offers us the chance to shape activities for ourselves that deploy not only a single skill, but multiple skills.

So how can we think about reconciliation of creative drives? Perhaps the most important action to take is this: think about things you love to do, and why. Can they be merged? Do they share a root faculty or ability? Is there an intermediate skill-set that could bridge them? Is there a way that you could undertake an activity (paid or otherwise) that draws on two or more skills? The answers may not be easy or quick to achieve, but thinking through such quandaries can lead to more satisfying work, an enhanced sense of personal worth and ability, something unique to offer the world, and some innovative ideas for research and scholarship.

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