Friday, April 22, 2005

I am =

“Who am I? Who am I? I am a walrus.” – The Geek, The Breakfast Club

“I write because I can’t do any of the following: paint, sculpt, sing, take photos, play an instrument, commute, wear a suit, remember appointments, return phone calls, work for a boss, concentrate in a meeting, serve food and drink, teach, or do anything else at all, really. Nor can I ever ignore the urge to try and get out what’s in, however hard I try.” – Nick Hornby

My friend Tai, on his blog, recently questioned whether or not what we do defines who we are. It made me think of my old office-mate’s (see “The Awesome Guy”) screensaver that read: Work is what you do, not where you go. I wonder, though, is it just as true to say: Work is what you do, not who you are?

When someone asks what we do, how often do we say, “I’m a [fill in the blank]” as though our job = “I am”? I think of the various second halves to that “I’m a” in my life. I’m a student. I’m an assistant. I’m a writer. I’m an assistant (again). I’m a student (again). I’m a teacher. I’m a writer (again). Yet, I never stopped being a writer. I’ve been writing since I could hold a pen and form words. I just went through periods where I felt like a total fraud equating the “I am” with “writer.”

Sometimes I think our “I am” is all about validating who we are, the choices we’ve made, what we’ve “become” to ourselves. I remember reading some writing book once upon a time (perhaps it was The Artist’s Way?) that stressed the importance of claiming your art as your title. Practice saying, “I’m a writer (painter, poet, composer, director),” so that you feel confident saying it to others. Yet, for me, I never felt confident saying that sentence until the day I was officially employed as a television writer. And then I felt elated to say it. I remember the exact moment, standing in the red light of a tiny bar in LA called El Carmen, waiting for the bathroom, where some guy broke the waiting-for-the-bathroom silence by saying, “What do you do?” and I said, “I’m a writer.” And suddenly, it didn't matter at all that the bouncer-slash-model I was seeing wasn't being all that attentive.

There’s also a strong element of our definition that’s for the sake of others. How do you see me? How will my fill-in-the-blank change or alter that? When we tell someone about a friend of ours or someone we’re seeing, and they say, “What does he/she do?” we know there will be a response (spoken or unspoken) to the “He/she’s a…” This answer will inevitably shape the impression of this as-yet-unmet person in the same way our own answer does.

Then we have a separate group of definitions for others that have nothing to do with their chosen (or fallen into) occupation. He’s my ex-boyfriend. She’s my best friend. My boss. My colleague. Some girl I met. This guy I really like. Whatever. Sample conversation: “I had dinner with T.” “Who’s T?” “Oh, this guy who works in insurance.” You wouldn't use this definition of T unless, of course, the only reason you had dinner with T is because you need to have some sort of conversation about insurance that involves dining. Because what defines T for you/me is who he is in relation to who you are, who I am. And in that version of “I am,” I am no longer “writer;” I am, “That girl I’m talking to” or whatever.

My friends and I always have nicknames for people that become their definitions. Coffee Boy. Taco Bell Mark. BPR. Girlfriend Josh (so named as to distinguish him from another Josh – and to constantly remind us that it didn’t matter how cute he was, he had a girlfriend). White Wine Guy. Angry Matt. Hot Matt. Cadre Ted (named after his dog when we met at a dog park). Imagine my surprise upon meeting Cadre Ted’s friends who said, “Oh. You’re Dog Park Pam.”

I think however others fill in our blank (either to our faces, or when speaking of us to others) the fill-in-the-blank that truly matters is our own. And just as that definition changes depending upon whom is speaking of us, it changes for us as well. Maybe “changes” is the wrong word. We are, at all moments, many “I am”s.

My own: I am a daughter. I am a sister. I am an aunt. I am the new girl. I am her friend. And I am a writer.


Blogger Tai said...

I'll go with Eminem here: "I am whatever [or whoever] you say I am"

12:57 PM  

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