I’ve been giving this alot of thought, or rather, I’ve been smashing my head against the walls of the box. Kobo Abe wrote a book called (translation) The Box Man, about a guy who writes his whole story inside a box. This was an actual box, which he wore over himself so no one could see him, writing on the smooth cardboard inside. The novel itself is basically the life story of an individual who is so far inside his own box that he is unseeable. The self of the box man is unseeable. The self is unseeable.
We cling to our identities and we make sure everyone around us is aware of those identities that define us and their definitions. There are identities in which, it is perceived, a person ought take pride, and identities of which a person should be ashamed. Identity looms large. Identity identifies us to passersby, to friends, to ourselves. We speak our outward identities to ourselves. We bring those identities into the box.
My son has started whining. We walk down the street and he asks “can we get a toy?” and I say “not today,” so he whines “but whhhyyyyy?!” I ask “do you think whining will get you what you want?” And he says “no.” He’s learning. The problem with whining is that I don’t want this whiny voice to be the voice in which he talks to himself. I tell him “don’t let your internal voice whine at you. Know your choices, know your abilities, know that you are capable.” Don’t let the whining voice into the box.
When I was in high school I drew and painted on my walls. I scribbled quotes from Henry Miller and Simone de Bouvier and “hell is other people” and Shermer, Illinois, 60062. I hung band posters and feminist posters and flyers for punk shows. Inside was my skull was madness. I wanted the outside to match the inside. After diligent effort, inside my room was madness, too. I loved my room. I felt like I could spread out, because the outside matched the inside and I could flow into it.
A few years ago, I took a tv script writing class. We wrote up some pilots, then practiced pitching them, and pitching ourselves. To pitch yourself we had to decide the thing that we were. Example: one guy’s box was to write accurate, gritty procedurals, with tough but sensitive heart-of-gold type characters. He had all the tools he needed, in his box, to back it up: had been lawyer practicing criminal justice, black, male. These tools were discussed openly, as fact, without emotion. When it was my turn to climb into a box, I said “I don’t know.” The tv writing instructor said to the class “okay guys, what’s Libby’s box?” They all said “you’re like Tina Fey.” They put me in the quirky, prep-school, academic seeming, white, woman box. I have never once in my life felt comfortable in that box. The box didn’t match me, and although my pilot matched me, it didn’t match the perceivable box and was therefore unsellable.
I am not my perceivable box. I have been smashing my head agaist that perceivable box. Those external identity identifiers have not made their way into the box, which now seems meant to be: “white, woman, mother, Brooklyn, artist.” I’m white because my parents are white. I’m a woman through accident of chromosomes or whatever, I’m a mother because I had a son, I live in Brooklyn because I couldn’t afford my apartment on the Lower East Side anymore and couldn’t bear leaving the City, I’m an artist because I make art.
My friend Alex Arcadia has been dealing with matters of open heart surgery. He’s had his chest cut open, it’ll be cut open again. Visiting with him in the hospital he said people have been saying “you’ll have so much to create about after this, you’ll be able to reflect all this experience in your art.” He was like “no, I won’t.” That’s not the kind of work he does, that’s not the kind of art he makes, or wants to. The art he makes is abstract based in a personal mythology, not real life medical drama. Individuals are no match for their box.
When we internalize too many identities, we may find that they conflict. We may find that in an attempt to be loyal to an internalized identity, we betray ourselves. The self grows and morphs and changes, but a defined identity stays its definition. An identity once worn as a uniform may not fit as we age, change, become someone else. There’s no reason to stay loyal to an identity that chafes, or to transform the self to match a static identity.
The self reaches out of the box, latches onto a identity, brings it back into the box, and tacks it up on the wall. Then we look at the walls of our box, and use those tacked up identities to tell us what we are. Defined identities do not define the self unless we internalize those meanings and replace the signified self with the signifiers. It’s not so much as how we are percieved, but how we percieve ourselves, how hard we fight to match the definitions of the identities we embrace.
It’s okay to not still be the person you used to be, and to not yet be the person you will become.
What culture wants from its artists is for an artist to express the perspective that their perceived identity entitles them to. We want heart surgery patients to make art about being heart surgery patients. We want analytic black former defense attorneys to make art about being analytic black former defense attorneys. We want artist moms in Brooklyn to make art about being artist moms in Brooklyn, Dominicans who grew up in the ghetto to make art about that. The thing we should value about artists is not their inate ability to express their individual identitities, but their ability to create across perspectives, their ability to empathasize, to understand perspectives, circumstances, lives, individuals, other than their own.
I had a teacher in high school who advised us, when we were writing essays and stories, not to write about war unless we’d been to war. In college I heard the oft-repeated mantra “write what you know.” But it turns out that you don’t know what you know until you explore it, research it, dig into your heart and your fear, and figure it out. There is a demand that artists be authentic to their box, but the box itself is a collection of identifiers and definitions that have way more to do with the need to perceive and be perceived than the actual self.