Approximately two years ago I quit smoking.
It was, unlike all the other times I had quit (for various lengths of time), rather undramatic. It wasn’t all that difficult. In fact, my husband and I sort of looked at each other one day and said, hey, let’s just quit and see how it goes. It happened a few days before my birthday. It happened on a nondescript day, probably a Tuesday or something.
In the past, I had struggled with being a nonsmoker. Many of my friends and loved ones smoked. I often felt left out as a nonsmoker – the mass exodus after a meal; I am left alone at the table. The group comes back in laughing and chattering. They’d congratulate me on quitting, give a few words of encouragement and laments about their own need to quit. The identity of “nonsmoker” just didn’t fit that well. Inevitably, I’d start up again, after anywhere between a week and a year.
Recently I stumbled upon a thing I wrote during that time:
I feel like maybe I’m made of mist, that I’m not actually all connected. There are parts of me that feel like they may float away if I stop thinking about them. I feel stuff in my veins – something, but not blood. I feel as though there might be a soul that is struggling to get free of the confines of my skin. It’s all very strange, and very conflicting.
I wrote, too, about why I was quitting. I like being a smoker, I wrote. But the list of things I didn’t like about smoking overrode my long-standing identity as a smoker. Which, of course, I’m glad for now. At the time, the act of becoming a nonsmoker seemed bodily – the new identity emerging from within.
It’s still strange to identify as a nonsmoker sometimes. It was part of who I was for a long time. It’s easier because no one really smokes anymore. When I started, it seemed like everyone smoked. With shame, I remember acutely starting to smoke because everyone else did.
Identity is something I think about (and write about) frequently. I’ve noticed that many of my friends and colleagues do, too. I wonder if it’s my field: something about English studies seems to demand we think and talk about identity in various contexts, and often. As writers, we consider our writerly identity. As teachers, we consider the identities of our students. And in the age of the internet, we – all of us, not just writers – have to negotiate our identities in unique ways.
I am reminded of this as I read Paul Lisicky’s essay, “A Weedy Garden.” Discussing his desire as a teenager to “self-erase” to avoid confronting his sexuality, he says, “Such self-annihilation unleashes its opposing force, of course: the need to say I exist, through a medium that suggests permanency.” And, given the difficulties inherent in such a conflicted mind, he finds himself “in the fiction camp. Fiction: where one becomes a self by escaping oneself. Or, better yet, where one can be many selves at once.”
Of the external forces at work, Lisicky says, “This notion of the Unified Self: I argue against it daily when looking at ads, or glancing through the ‘just for you’ lists that come up on Amazon or iTunes. So many external forces telling us who we are, what we should be.”
We like these external forces usually, or at least we tolerate them. If you use Spotify, you’ve likely found yourself enjoying the custom-made “just for you” playlist “Discover Weekly,” curated by concerned algorithms that make scary-accurate predictions of music you might like. Or, on Facebook, you scroll through your feed, enjoying the content you see without usually remembering that you’re only seeing what Facebook wants you to see – and, of course, it’s deciding that based on who it thinks you are and what it thinks you want. Have you checked your ad preferences lately? Here’s a small sliver of my 200+ identity markers:
Who we are online is a whole can of worms to be opened another day, but it’s worth noting that these forces are contributing to identity crises and is something that we are only just beginning to talk about and understand. It’s also likely one of the reasons we see more and more conversations about identity. Whether we want to call it a millennial thing, bring in recent conversations about stuff like sexuality or gender identity (another can of worms), or even point to politics, it’s evident that we’re discussing and considering who we are in new ways. Wesley Morris called 2015 “The Year We Obsessed Over Identity.” It’s easy to see, from a birds-eye view, how many of our concerns are inextricably linked to a whole slew of identity markers and long-standing binaries that we are beginning to refuse.
I think that, as writers, we have an especially acute sense of how identity factors into the work we do. And, if writing fiction allows one to escape oneself or become many selves, I wonder what this means for writers of nonfiction. Are we a certain breed, made up of things like narcissism, curiosity, and longing? And, if we write in multiple genres, are we encountering various versions of our selves or our desires in order to express ourselves?
I watch my children, who are 11 and 13, starting to find themselves. Identity is a pretty big deal when you’re that age, especially once you hit your teens. My 13-year-old is constantly negotiating the tricky business of asserting himself, being “cool” or whatever, figuring out how to middle school, and, in addition, feeling the pressure of what society/his parents/his teachers/et al. want him to be or do. As we get older, I think we forget both how hard it is to be in that liminal space and how formative those years are.
In his mind, and in the minds of most children and teens and maybe young adults, I, and other “grownups” are already “who we are.” And that’s even more pressure for all of us, albeit a pressure that’s necessary and enduring. I am “Mom” and I am “Adult” and his dad and I and his teachers and other grownups have jobs and pay bills and do our idiosyncratic things and are Us.
What he doesn’t know, though, is that “who you are” never really fully forms. At least, I don’t think it does. We begin to have a better sense of what aspects of “who we are” really matter to us (eventually), but when birthdays come and go, and loved ones grow older or pass away and we become the next generation of caregivers or care receivers, and as we look around and realize we’re not quite where we thought we’d be, that old question of “who are you?” rears its ugly head.
Lisicky’s essay ends with a lovely meditation.
Your Truth. My Truth. So many Truths pressing against us that if we absolutely consider what’s at stake, our own Truth inevitably swells and swells, fatter and fatter until we’re almost sick with what we contain. No, says the Unified Self…No, says the Right and the Wrong, the Spoken and Unspoken, the In and the Out, the I exist and the you’re not here. So large with life that we can’t help but blow from the pressure of holding so much in, exploding onto the page in fragments.
This makes sense to me, as a writer. And, though I have no answers about who any of us are, or were, or will be, the question of identity won’t go away, and I suppose it’s worthwhile to keep talking about it, rather than to hold it all in and feel super confused and think everyone else has it together and knows who they are. Because (spoiler alert): none of us know who we are or have any idea what we’re doing.