Tag Archives: Heidi W. Durrow

The Story of Your Identity

Mom, Writer, Therapist, Wife, Self …

My blog has shifted a little in the nine months since it began.  I’m writing more and more about parenting, less lately about body image.  My Mom-identity—as multifaceted as that is—is really dominant lately.  I’m restarting my therapy practice, so I’ll be home less—which, ironically, is why motherhood is so much on my writing-mind right now.  I’m aware of the upcoming changes, preparing to miss being home as much as I am now, yet exhilarated by the idea of all the adventures my kids will have to share with me when we’re together.   In any case, my mom-self has been driving this blog lately.  So today I thought I’d go back to basics—and do a post about identity itself.

The subject of identity is so broad; so much has been written on it.  There’s gender identity, racial and religious identity, national identity.   Your identity comes, not just from the place you live in, but also from your place in the family.   Were you the parentified first-born?   Were you the “troubled middle child?” Were you the baby?

Think about your roles too.  How different you are with your colleagues, with your friends, your spouse, your children.  Do you surprise yourself by regressing every time you visit your parents’ home?   Or maybe you manage an office full of employees, yet have to stand on your head while singing Old MacDonald just to get your toddler to try a single mouthful of peas.

Children have different identities too.  Think of the little girl who’s quiet and shy at school, but a wild, silly cut-up at home?  She’s cautious in the school environment where “good” behavior is stressed, then lets loose where she knows she’s safest.  (Both sides to her are normal and healthy.  You only worry when she seems anxious and withdrawn in the place where she’s usually at ease.)  It’s good to be flexible, adapting the different sides of you to the situation at hand.

In addition to being a mother, I am a daughter, a wife, a writer.  I am a therapist, a friend, a former dancer.   I’m the old friend who makes you laugh. I’m a city kid, an only child, a Biracial Jew, and a member of two different PTAs.  My identity is made of all these pieces and more.

Heidi W. Durrow, the author of Bellwether Prize winning The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, a favorite biracial author (right up there with Zadie Smith) describes her identity in an NPR interview as “a story.”  She is talking about her parents’ backgrounds, how they met, how she grew up–how all that added up to who she is today.   I love this description.  I believe we are all stories.

When I was doing my post-grad work at the Ackerman Institute, we studied Gregory Bateson and the Milan Group and learned about “Circular Questioning,”  also the work of David Epston and Michael White on Narrative Therapy or Re-storying.  We’d encourage families to tell the stories of their problems, asking for different perspectives from the different members present.  Sometimes a client would have difficulty breaking out of a destructive behavioral pattern and we’d find this linked to an inner personal narrative.

“I’m the lazy one in the family,” or “I’ve always been the trouble maker.”

We’d ask, “Who in the family might have a different description of you?”  “Who might tell another story?”

A pause, some thought.  “Well Grandpa always said I was a late bloomer, a diamond in the rough.”

The idea was that thinking about yourself in a new way stretches your identity and opens up new doors.

Sometimes you get to tell the story of your identity; sometimes it comes from others you know.  Sometimes it’s something pinned on you that you take issue with.  For example, when one sister is called “the beauty” and the other is called “the brains.”   No matter how unfair or limiting those designations might be, they are still part of each sister’s identity–if only as something she’ll want to break free from one day.

Sometimes the part of your identity that feels most difficult to bear, or most threatened or most outnumbered, is the one you’re most aware of.  For example, if you’re the only woman in a room full of men, if you’re the only grown-up in a mini-van full of rowdy tweens, the thing that sets you apart is the identity you’re most connected to.

Which parts of you come into play the most?  Which piece of your identity is dominant right now?

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Writing is Identity

With so many great blogs out there about books and writing, why blog about books and writing?  Especially since my blog is supposed to be about body image and identity.  Well, writing is identity.

I’ll confess, ever since I got back from the Writer’s Digest Conference in NYC last weekend, I’ve been struggling to come up with a decent post.  A (minor) shoulder injury has put off my next installment of “To Dance Again;” my kids haven’t done anything special to inspire a new mixed-race-parenting piece—nor have I had any ah-hah moments about my own biracial, Jewish, black, ex-dancer-shrink-ness.

Frankly, though I’ve been proof-reading, not really writing, I’ve thinking of nothing but my writing, which is itself an identity topic.  My writing is made up of all the pieces that make me myself.  (I think most writers would agree.)

I am in full writer mode this week.  My kids get it: they scrounge for their own snack and start their own homework, work out their own little squabbles, knowing that somewhere upstairs in the fire-hazard, dust-bunny haven of the study, is Mommy-as-Writer-Lady (they know I’ll be down to cook and feed and hang out later).

I haven’t posted here for a whole week; I’ve been too busy giving my novel one last comb through before sending requested pages to agents I met at the conference.  (Still insanely giddy over the fact that they were interested enough to ask!)   And now that I’m finally posting, what do I post about?  Writing!

Here’s why I write: Certain aspects of being human either vex, amuse or fascinate me.  I need to get them down in my own quirky way, ultimately to see whether or not others feel as I do.  In The Marriage Plot (which I haven’t finished yet), Jeffrey Eugenides’s Madeleine finds in Barthes “the reason she read books in the first place … a sign that she wasn’t alone.”  In Heidi W. Durrow’s The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (which I will post more about at another time), when Rachel says, “…the other black girls in school think I want to be white … I don’t want to be white … I want to be nothing,”  I think, yes, it’s something I’ve felt before.

So maybe you’re not biracial, black or Jewish, maybe you’ve never obsessed about whether your thighs touch when you stand with your feet together, maybe you’re not an only child or even female.  But when you read me you just might see a small part of yourself reflected back.

Now, let me take this opportunity to say what a thrilling, magical weekend I had at the Writer’s Digest Conference (#WDC12 in Twitter-speak).   I met so many fascinating people: other aspiring authors, some successful ones, editors, agents and others in this great, old, but rapidly changing field of publishing.  Though everyone says, “go to conferences with an open mind, ready to learn everything you can,” I’ll admit I went mostly to pitch Birch Wood Doll.  Once I got there, though, I inhaled information, from “Writing about Yourself in the Digital Age,” with A.J. Jacobs , to “Conflict and Suspense” with James Scott Bell, to a fantastic kid-lit seminar with Mary Kole , which convinced me to make my next project a YA venture.  Of course the Pitch Slam—60 agents, 400+ unpublished authors, 3 hours—was the high point.  I was fortunate enough to walk away with business cards from five of the agents on my top-six list.  I got home and immediately read through BWD again for typos and awkward phrasing, sent everything out on Tuesday and found myself coming down with a cold and an utter loss for words.

Fortunately, I had signed up for a Pitchapalooza workshop at Watchung Booksellers  last night.  I decided not to pitch Birch Wood Doll, since my pitch had been successful at the WDC.  Instead I challenged myself to formulate a pitch for the (as yet unwritten) YA book, just to see if “The Book Doctors” would think it sounded worthwhile.  The good news is that they did.  And with that project to look forward to (yet another novel heavily featuring body image and identity) my blogging voice seems to have returned.

Lastly, to the wonderful fellow writers I met last weekend—Grace, Joanna, AG, KSZ, Harry and others—I am rooting for you all!