When Old Identities No Longer Serve You

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Hailey Magee _ No Place Special

**Disclaimer: I write some of my blog posts over the course of weeks. Others are the culmination of a few hours in a coffeeshop. This post is the latter. It began as a private journal entry before I realized that I would love to share it with others - creatives, in particular - to hear your feedback, your stories, and your perspective. Throughout the course of my life, my various identities have been both havens of safety and cages of discontent. This particular post depicts my “identity” as a musician and how it has morphed over time. Please feel free to share your own stories of the challenges and rewards of ever-shifting identities in the comments. Thanks for reading!**

I’ve been writing my own music since I was 5. I performed original compositions throughout high school and college. When I turned 21, I went to every open mic within a 20-mile radius and played ticketed shows. When I turned 22, I started organizing events, workshops, and showcases for musicians in Boston. And then, without warning, I lost interest in playing and performing entirely.

At first I blamed writer’s block. Then I blamed my busy schedule. But neither reason explained my utter disinterest in the art form that had once captivated my heart. Bewildered, I began turning down performance opportunities. Every time somebody asked me when my next show was, I felt myself blush and said, “I’m not sure - I’m taking a hiatus right now.” Inevitably, the listener would express disappointment, then good-naturedly encourage me to book something soon and keep playing. Their intentions were loving, but after experiencing hundreds of these exchanges, I felt nothing but pressure.

What was wrong with me? After all, being a musician was my identity: an identity I’d made public with hundreds of performances and Facebook statuses and a website.

But now, the identity that had made me feel seen, heard, and given me a sense of belonging felt like a favorite shirt that I’d outgrown. It felt like a cage.

So I tried to justify my disinterest. I had plenty of legitimate, believable reasons, like:

  • I’m too busy //

  • I work as a Musician Career Coach now. I’ve been over-involved with my artists and under-involved with my own music //

  • I’m insecure about my musical talent because I’m very close to incredibly talented, trained performers //

  • I’ve seen the music industry from the inside out, and I don’t like the narcissism and the ego within //

These felt like true excuses. They were accurate, but incomplete. The whole story was short and simple: I didn’t want to write or play anymore.

Throughout the past three years, this has caused me enormous difficulty. I felt ashamed for falling out of love with writing music. But as Bonnie Raitt says, “I can't make you love me if you don't // You can't make your heart feel something it won't.”

  The MOTH at St. Marks’ Cathedral, Seattle

The MOTH at St. Marks’ Cathedral, Seattle

As time passed, I began to feel creative in other ways. I bought a cajon and attended local drum circles. I wrote erotica and enjoyed applying my proclivity for writing to something sexy and taboo. I donned my sports bra and sweatpants and danced around my room to hip hop songs, not knowing what I was doing, (totally looking like an idiot, by the way), but loving it. I went to countless story slams, basking in the transformative power of narrative. I watched wide-eyed as my chef friends designed elaborate meals, and vowed to become a better cook. I wrote blog posts which simultaneously built my business and gave me the chance to process my own experiences. Last week I went to my first improv show and laughed my ass off for 90-minutes straight, an experience I’m certain was beneficial for my mental health. I’m signing up for a hip hop dance class in January.

Clearly, my creativity hasn’t left me. If anything, it has blossomed, inspired by major changes in my life and an ever-growing sense of curiosity. But, beneath each of these creative discoveries has been a quiet shame, a sense that I’m betraying a part of myself. I’m reminded of the many middle-aged adults who mourn the day they quit piano lessons or gave up saxophone. How many times have we heard the tragic story of the artist who gave up her art?

But then, I remember: How many times have we heard the tragic story of the person who never explored new territory because she was afraid to leave the familiar?

Elizabeth Gilbert, in her book Big Magic, defines a creative life as: “a life that is driven more strongly by curiosity than by fear.” What if, instead of cringing in fear at letting an old artistic inclination go, I open my heart to curiosity - to creativity in the widest sense? When I imagine giving myself permission to explore new art forms unapologetically, I feel a wave of relaxation spread across my shoulders. I feel excited in a way I haven’t felt in ages. I imagine making new friends in these different artistic circles - writers, dancers, comedians - and my heart leaps.

This case of shifting identity has been a teacher to me - yet another reminder of the impermanence that colors every moment of our lived experience. It’s taught me to interact with the world around me without feeling like I have to call it “mine.” Identities grow and shift like the wind, for some of us faster than others. (Geminis, amirite?) As such, I would love to learn to hold on to my identities loosely: to reap the benefits of belonging when they serve me, and to thank them for their lessons when they leave me.

In all likelihood, I will return to music one day. But my return will be predicated on curiosity and genuine interest - not on filling a perceived identity deficit. If I begin playing again, it will be because the urge strikes me - not because “that’s what a musician does.” My friend Donna puts it, as always, so beautifully: “I write songs because it’s the same as eating or breathing or walking. I just wanna do it. And I don’t want to make them clever or appealing or whatever - I just do it.”