The French foreign legion provides a ready made identity to men wanting a tough adventurous life. The purpose of the identity is to keep you on course. You look at yourself in the mirror and go ‘yeah, I’m a soldier/sailor/tinker/tailor and this is what I do’. The identity gets you through the days. With an identity you can persist and achieve something worthwhile. Identity is like a suit if clothes. Imagine having to do a job in public stark naked- you’d keep having to fend off people’s stupid comments. Well those comments come from your inner critic when you have no identity. Simply being clothed lets you get on with it.
The reason identity is a big deal is that your identity gives you assignments. If you are a ‘writer’ telling yourself to write a novel is no big deal- it’s what writers do. But if you are in ‘tinker’ mode you’ll be full of self doubt. Also the identity includes an off the shelf set of behaviours that help you achieve what people with that identity usually do. It’s like getting the overalls and toolkit of a plumber and so, when you turn up to fix the tap you are halfway there already…which reminds me, a friend who is a builder told me that everyone now has workwear and proper tools whereas in his day you just wore your old clothes. People have a stronger need for identity these days- traditional identities are seen as compromised or even repugnant- the St George’s cross of England is identified by some as signifying far right sympathies. The ‘working class’- originally a strong identity becomes diffuse with the creation of a welfare state and free universal education. Without strong ‘off the peg’ identities people have to work hard to create their own. Hence the American habit of spieling out your lifestory/mission purpose whenever you meet someone new- this is your identity.
If you are unable to give yourself big assignments, or big enough assignments; or you can’t take such assignments seriously, then you need to tweak or change your identity. The easiest way is to hang out with people who already have that identity. Just as an actor can ‘catch’ a character by hanging out with someone, so, too, can an identity be caught. Strangely enough, when you know all the mannerisms and details of an identity the bulky mid part of actually doing what the identity does is relatively straightforward (easy or not).
Identity is the very devil wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein- and it is! When we have a strong identity we find our motivation is clear. We know what we have to do. I know writers who complain bitterly about doing PR talks on the radio and at bookshops and festivals ‘I only want to write’ they complain. But they do it, because all that PR is now part of the identity ‘writer’. You see how identity ‘creep’ begins. Eventually an identity can have nothing to do with its original activity. This doesn’t seem to matter, unless, perhaps, you want to pursue that original activity…sometimes the only way to do that is to adopt an ‘outsider’ identity. Outsider artists are able to dispense with many of the silly attributes of modern artistic practice (commercialism, publicity, academicism) and just get on with being super productive. It gets even more confusing when insiders mimic being an outsider artist…
The way to cut the Gordian knot of identity is to ask the simple question- is it using me or am I using it? If you have to spend twenty years in the army doing the dirty work of politicians in order to feel tough then I suspect you’ve been used.
There is nothing magic about an identity. Think of it as being like a cartoon. You can have the barest outline and get the character immediately. Or you can have a very lifelike drawing that lacks verve and movement, seems dead in fact. You could go to all the trouble of joining the army only to find you have a desk job. You have the externals but not the inner reality. So the essence of identity is having the bare minimum to get the job done. How much ‘baker’ identity do you need to bake a decent loaf.
The essence of character lies in details. Why do army uniforms have all those fiddly bits on them, all those tassels and braid? Because these details constitute a distinct identity. One key to identity is it being distinct and prominent- it should be burnt into the cells of the brain. This is either done through repetition of an activity or through it being memorable…the important thing is to have just enough identity to get the motivation to do what you want to do. Going on a course is often a good way to get a new identity- often more important than what they teach you on the course.
For a long while I didn’t tell people I was a writer even though I did a fair bit of writing in my spare time. Then I decided I would, it helped me complete and publish my first book, it added a bit of steel to my purpose. If you’re an ordinary bod getting a book published is a big deal, but if you’re a writer it’s normal. Anxiety levels drop.
Maybe that is the key. Anxiety is the big killer of successful attempts at things. We get anxious and we fail. I’m not talking about the slight tightening and tuning that comes with being stretched, I’m talking about dithering and losing confidence and going to pieces. Your identity, like the soldiers uniform, helps you to avoid this. You have a new normal. Of course, identity is no guarantee of succeeding in any enterprise, it is just one more tool that may be of help. The main thing is to have just enough detail to con your chattering brain you can do the job...