I’ve always struggled to both find and promote my own identity, and because of this I have come to find reading about other’s processes of discovering their own identity fascinating. As a writer who writes about identity and all the ups and downs that come with accepting yourself (as, essentially, that’s what writing means to me), I’m doubly fascinated by such a process because it makes me wonder why the search for identity seems to lie at the core of every person and, indeed, every character. (Couple this with a search for voice, as I wrote about last week, and my mind is blown. It can also leave me a little heart broken – but in a good way.)
Maybe this is because an identity is something every person wants. However, this sense of identity that has pervaded popular culture appears fixable and, honestly, a bit too static for my taste. If you are a girly girl, for example, you should be flirty and constantly lovely and wear cute dresses that always look as if they were just bought that day. If you’re a guy’s guy, you should be strong and uber-masculine and always protect your woman and never show emotion.
These are extremes, obviously, but what about those of us (and, I expect, the majority of us) who lie somewhere in the middle?
Those are the kinds of stories I want to read about. They’re also the stories I want to write. But, I’ve been finding, writing those stories can be just as hard – and maybe even more so – as living them.
The ultimate “searching for identity” book I always seem to come back to – even though I only first read it last summer – is Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. I was originally struck the first time I read it, and I continue to be struck, by how her lovely narrative can somehow seamlessly hold two disparate parts of herself up to such eloquent commentary: the first “part” as, essentially, who/what she thinks she should be and the second “part” as who she actually is. Without going into any more specific details about the book – because you should all seriously check it out or place it on hold at your local library – her narrative is roughly divided into a back-and-forth commentary between these two “parts” of herself. And what I find so amazing is that she is both refreshingly critical and heartbreakingly pragmatic about these two parts that are at odds with each other most of the time. But whether she essentially becomes or accepts these two somewhat contradictory parts of herself as being who she really is (or whether she is something else altogether), her struggle to answer that question definitively is a messy one that, at times, obliterates everything else in its path.
Which is the part of the book that I find myself the most drawn to. There’s this image I seem to have in my head of the person I want to be – the person, in some ways, I deeply yearn to be – and this other person I actually am. The person I am I can be disappointed with at times, but I can also be elated and surprised and utterly astounded by at others.
I have to learn – and I am, happily, slowly learning – not just to be moved by the utterly astounding person, though, but also by the one who disappoints me at times. Because in those two persons, and not just the one who does everything “right” all the time, is who I really am. And when those two persons come out on the same day, it doesn’t mean that I’m confused about who I really am.
It means I am comfortable with who I really am, and am comfortable with showing who I really am to others. Even though that can be hard. (Correction: is hard.)
Lucy Grealy taught me this in the words of her memoir. She was able to move me, as a person, towards an identity I might not like all sides of on my best days, and who I definitely don’t like all sides of on my bad ones.
But that shouldn’t change who I am, or who I want to be. And that realization is the hard part, but the good part. It’s also the part that makes me utterly, heartbreaking human.
I might be doomed to search for the words that will one day describe who I really am at my core – the ones we all search for as we either come closer to or further away from our identity.
Or I might never find the words.
But the search, I am just starting to tell myself, makes it all worthwhile. The search is the sweet part, the goal elusive and temporary.
And being ok with holding these two disparate parts in equal measure, rather than having one being in a state of perpetual competition with the other, might be the best lesson I will ever teach myself.
“Artists are people driven by the tension between the desire to communicate and the desire to hide.” -D.W. Winnicott