Reclaiming Creative Identity After a Loss

Originally published on Artist Soapbox on 25 October 2018

Greetings, Soapboxers!

I’m a nerd about dates. Birthdays, anniversaries. I generally love acknowledging these annual markers. A recent anniversary has me thinking about creative identity, loss and Ronnie James Dio. Well, if THAT didn’t grab you, maybe this will:

Five years ago this month, I experienced the distress of a home robbery. The most painful part for me was the loss of all my musical equipment. For the previous ten years, music was my primary creative outlet and social sphere. I played in various bands, wrote songs, designed ridiculous stage costumes and props and experienced the joy and exhilaration of playing loud, aggressive music with people I loved.

But, as anyone who has been in a band can attest, bands are also a giant pain in the ass — particularly when you’re young, loud, and snotty (as Dead Boys might say). To varying degrees at various times, you can find yourself swirling in an unhealthy mix of ego, substance (ab)use, and immaturity. As much as I loved playing music, I knew I needed a break from bands.

On the day my house was robbed, though, I felt like someone else made a choice for me. They chose to end my music career.

The person who took my gear had no idea what they had. Not only the rarity of a few of the guitars but the pieces of my identity contained within. The Ibanez I used to write my first songs. Learning my way around that Fender amp when I was so young and so green and so thrilled when I perfectly replicated the tone from “London Calling.” Working alone with the producer while my bandmates got lunch, hearing my Ric through a vintage head, opening myself up to experiment and play around with his suggestions.

Each guitar was imbued with these memories. And now they were gone. If I no longer had a guitar, could I still call myself a guitar player? I was so utterly heartbroken that for years the answer was “no.” I took the robbery as a sign: my musician days were behind me.

But nothing real can be threatened.

My first play, Yes To Nothing, borrowed heavily from my experiences in punk bands. Up until then, I thought of my music life and my theater life as existing in separate orbits. My heart stills swells with gratitude to think of all my musician friends who came out to support that play. I lost track of the number of times I heard, “Why aren’t you playing music right now?” or “We need to get you out playing again.”

At the time, the thought of being in a band again terrified me. It had been so long. I still had creative blocks around writing music. Previous bad experiences made me doubt I could find people with whom I would genuinely enjoy playing music.

Fast-forward. I found them. We’re a band. It’s all of the good stuff and basically none of the bad stuff. With their encouragement, I just bought my first guitar since the robbery. My first real reclamation of my identity as a musician.

Because, much like Cheryl Chamblee expressed in blog post 013, I am a still musician. Even if it has been a while. Even if I’m rusty. Even if I’m intimidated. I have been a musician all my life and that is never going to change. Beyond my artistic identity, music is fundamental and essential to my human identity.

I don’t think I realized how much old grief I was still carrying around from the robbery and the loss of my identity as a musician. Finding these fantastic bandmates and allowing myself to feel their support and camaraderie opened the emotional floodgates. Call me old fashioned, but for my money there’s nothing like a good ol’ uncontrollable sob fest in the car. The tears flowed, and I mean HARD, as I let go of old pains and embraced the freedom and ease and acceptance I felt with my new bandmates. [Though I was definitely crying my face off, I did note that the song on the radio was “Holy Diver” because, c’mon, that’s just hilarious.]

Soapboxers, I want to hear from you. Have your past identities or difficult experiences kept you from yourself? Have you been down too long in the midnight sea?  When did you realize you were ready to jump jump jump on the tiger?

OK, now that I think about it, hearing Dio in that moment was 100% apropos. Of course. Never doubt Dio.

‘Til next time,

MT

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