Before The Story: Identity Crises

Before The Story is a blog series about artist interviews and personal stories about becoming an artist.

Before The Story: Identity Crises

“What do you do?”

storyteller, storytelling, artistIt’s a question I’ve never known how to answer. Whether posed in a social or networking setting or even a romantic one, I have a hard time articulating my career. Sometimes I’d simply say barista or whatever dayjob I had at the time and other times I’d say writer or comedian. Is there a right answer? Does it depend on how much time you spend a week or years in the career or how you pay your rent? My philosophy as of late has simply been to name my pursuit, not my progress. I may get the majority of my income from live show production right now but I almost always answer, “Writer.”

A writer is what I’ve been since I created elaborate plots with my action figures in my parent’s basement circa age 8. It’s what I was when I was closeted in high school, writing teen romance stories I’d never live. It’s what I am now in my freetime. Being a writer is why I enjoyed the streamlined storytelling of stand-up comedy. Though I enjoy every other job, gig and hobby I’ve amassed, writing is what I’d pick if I had to choose just one. Writing is what I see myself doing in my elder years. This may change. But for now, I am a writer.

What’s interesting to me is how other people describe me. If someone introduces me or stops me on the street, I’m almost always recognized as a comedian. This has nothing to do with publicity. If I spend years writing a book, I may not mention it to anyone but my closest friends and only a handful of people may ever read it. But when I have a big comedy show, I’ll try and list it in newspapers, magazines and blogs. Sometimes I’m featured with interviews and pictures, other times I’m just mentioned as another performer. Considering circulation, the thousands of people that glance at my name or face, consciously or not, commit to memory that I am a comedian. From this regularity, I often wonder if I’m a writer or not. Is my occupation a democracy? Is my publicity false advertising? Am I hurting my chances of being seen as anything but a comedian through exposure?

storytelling, storyteller, artist

Courtesy Nightspots Magazine

Conversely, my mother always describes me as the last job that I’ve had which she understands. She has been to shows of mine that have hundreds of audience members and has understood that I created, produced and performed in the shows yet she constantly tells people, “He works at a bar.” She has met assistants of mine and been at book stores with me where she finds magazines where I’m on the cover yet whenever we get to chatting, she asks about that publicity job I had twice a week in the suburbs months ago. It can be unnerving. But as someone who previously wanted to be an artist, maybe she is only trying to manage my expectations in the caring yet passive aggressive way only a mother can?

I’ve been guilty of assumption too. Recently, I met a guy and I asked him what he did. He told me he was a stand-up comedian and my first thought was, “No, you’re not.” It wasn’t that I thought he couldn’t be talented enough or that I know all of the stand-up comedians in Chicago but there aren’t many local stand-up comedians who work full time. And I am lucky enough to know all of them. After more conversation, I learned he was new to town and hasn’t had much chance to perform yet. Don’t get me wrong, I never verbally questioned the authenticity to his claim. (Though it would have been fun to point and shout, “Prove it! Make me laugh!”) But I still wondered. In hindsight, I realized he explained what he waned to do, not what he paid his bills with, just like I do.

There’s a difference between saying I’m a writer and saying I’m a member of the writer’s guild. Just like there’s a difference between saying you’re an actor and saying you’re starring opposite Meryl Streep in the next Steven Spielberg flick. So at what point do you identify as your chosen profession? Whether your motivation is faking it till you make it, naming your interest, or just old fashioned delusion, I’d say what profession you identify as is whatever one you’re working toward. And, the most important question concerning how you identify yourself, does anyone else’s opinion matter?

3 thoughts on “Before The Story: Identity Crises

  1. Tony

    I’ve thought about this same question a lot. I find it’s easier to use a verb, “I make comics,” than to use a noun, “I’m a cartoonist.” The first is an unassailable statement of fact: there are comics, and I wrote them. The second is a claim to identity.

    It took me a long time to go from a verb to a noun. Because I don’t support myself with my comics, I couldn’t be sure if I had any claim to that identity. The transition point for me was just about a year ago, when I was nominated for a major award. I went to a conference; people treated me like a cartoonist and I felt like a cartoonist.

    Still, when people ask me what I do, I don’t usually say I’m a cartoonist. My day job is an identity in itself, and reasonably important to me. Often I’ll say three things: I’m an IT manager, cartoonists, and DJ.

    1. Adam Post author

      Recognition is a great one, Tony. I left that one out. It’s pretty hard to say you’re not an artist anymore when you win an award for a certain kind of art. Thanks for replying!

      1. Tony

        Being on the cover of a magazine is a significant kind of recognition; you mentioned that, though you didn’t talk about it as such.

        I didn’t win the award, I was just nominated—but it was a big deal to me anyway.


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