Who am I? An exercise in identity

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Fellow IQ writer Anne Goodwin has brought out a collection of short stories called Becoming Someone– all themed around the topic of identity. I went to her book launch last week which gave me me the idea for this week’s writing exercise.

Identity is a rich seam for writers – it’s the essence of character.  In fiction, you can do a lot with the theme of identity;  mistaken, stolen, multiple, fake – all make for great material. It’s also essential for memoir writing. Which aspect of yourself do you choose to write about?

How we define ourselves is a subject of endless fascination. Do we view ourselves through the eyes of others? Do we describe ourselves through our roles in society, our values, our politics, our age, race or gender? The possibilities are endless because identity is multi-faceted.

In Shakespeare’s As You Like it, the Melancholy Jaques talks about the seven ages of man: ‘All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players, They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts..’, and it’s true, throughout our lives we each play numerous roles. 

For today’s exercise, start by writing a list of words that describe you, then write them up into a short passage. Here’s mine: In my time I have been child, sister, friend, lover, wife, colleague, comrade and confidante. I have been journalist, spin-doctor and teacher, but I have always been a writer. It took a long time for me to have the confidence to call myself a writer. 

Exercise 2: Write a piece containing the sentence ‘it was a case of mistaken identity.’

Exercise 3: The mirror image

Photo by Edgar Pereira on Unsplash

I first came across this as a character-creating exercise in a fiction writing workshop, but it could work equally well for memoir or self-awareness. This is what you do:

Stand or sit in front of a mirror for 10 minutes. Observe yourself as though you were looking at another person. Resist the temptation to look away or to focus on aspects of yourself you are critical of. Just look dispassionately for 10 minutes. 

After the 10 minutes is up, take a notebook and write down some biographical detail about the person you’ve been looking at. Give them a name (not your own), a place, an occupation,  a relationship (or two), a back-story. Write about this person as though you are creating a fictional character. 

When I did this the person I saw in the mirror was a self-employed van driver with five children.  She was down to earth, non-nonsense, and gutsy, with a touch of quirkiness. She had an artistic streak, but was not a writer. Interestingly, the woman looking back at me was stronger than I believed myself to be. I had created an alter-ego, an alternative me. A part of her stayed with me. 

So have a go! You might be surprised at what comes out. When I introduced this to a previous class one guy said he saw George Clooney looking back!

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4 Responses

  1. Annecdotist

    Fascinating where this took you! And now you’ve passed the baton to the van driver. I look forward to seeing where she goes.

    • admin

      I like the idea of creating alternative personas (within reason)!

  2. Phil Isherwood

    Can I encourage those with a skill in ‘identity; to consider hospice writing? The principal focus of my hospice work is to celebrate an individual’s personal identity and creativity; poetry that is able to access the wonder of a life portrayed, through a numinous poetics, will be valuable to patients (and their families) in the affirmation of personal significance. The psychologist Dan McAdams, in his book ‘The Stories We Live By’, argues for us to see a narrative self, a construction of identity made from stories, the anecdotal or the epic. As a Hospice Poet I listen to, and reflect, the stories. The reflection of self through poetry is, in my view, most powerful when it achieves a sense of the numinous (that is, resting upon aesthetic mysteries as opposed to any catalogue of a life’s objective achievements).

    • admin

      This is interesting, Phil. In the group at Maggie’s we also discussed our identities as people affected by cancer and how there is a danger, when swept up in treatment regimes, of identity becoming eclipsed by that of ‘cancer patient’.