We'd just sat down at an upstairs table in a sunny Virginia Beach library. It was the first time Mel Hunt and I met in person for her new video series, Perspectives on Practice. Mel hit record and sat down beside me.
She began my introduction. "She is a filmmaker, and a storyteller, and I always think of you as a writer. That's maybe the first word that comes to mind for me with you. But maybe after I see your film tonight, filmmaker will come first."
In the footage I flash a momentary smile but mostly I look serious--it happens when I'm listening with all I've got. But Mel's words surprised me then, and they still come back every time I sit down to write--right along with my surprise at hearing them.
I don't think of myself as a writer. I did once, maybe, for a small window of time over five years ago. Before I fell in love with a camera for the first time. Before I set foot on a stage, before I started catching my friends and their stories--in the sound studio, in still shots and then on film.
I felt equally unmoored during a writing exercise with Liz Lamoreux at the Be Present Retreat last September with Kelly Barton. I strung some words together and they made me feel something and I thought, "I forgot I had this move."
These days when I share anything I've written I feel bashful and like some kind of interloper. It sounds like this: "What do you think you're doing?"
Which has me thinking about the way our sense of identity can limit us and chafe.
This time last year I made a movie and then almost had a complete and utter breakdown because I couldn't resolve the idea of inhabiting an identity called "filmmaker".
Identities are slippery things--they can call us forward into a future or a new aspect of ourselves, for sure. But that's only if we can step into them. If not, they can become closed doors marked by sloppy signs in all caps: "KEEP OUT." "MEMBERS ONLY."
Perhaps they are hard to step into because of the singularity they imply. "This only," instead of "This AND".
We are told time and again to find our identity in our actions and not some preconceived notion of what a "real" [fill in the blank] is or is not. Writers write. Painters paint.
But what if we are also missing an identity big enough to hold it all--not just what we do (or one sliver of it) but also who we are?
Could we create a construct or a word that means:
- There is no separation between the life and the art here. Washing the dishes is my hymn and sitting with a paintbrush in hand is my finest parenting.
- Sometimes I make films. Sometimes I arrange words into rows or try to say something true into a microphone. Lately I'm happiest when coloring like a little kid. (Another great practice I picked up at the Be Present Retreat.)
- I hate feeling alone. Everything I make, every word I line up against its neighbor is my attempt to help your alone to recede. Or even disappear.
- I want to tell the truth but it still feels like an atrophied muscle. Intellectually I aspire to this, but emotionally I really struggle.
- I worry about frivolous things like how frizzy my hair is or is about to become enough to make you lose all respect for me.
- The deepest, truest work is happening when it looks like nothing is happening. So much so that even I perpetually doubt myself.
- I love work that is for love and about love.
- I worry that I'm too attached to the people in my life.
- That I think too much.
- Talk too much.
- But when something wants to be said or to be made, I want to be a YES, with whatever humble moves I've got.
What could we call that? Someone put it on a shirt for me.