Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Identity revisited

A couple posts ago, I touched briefly on the phenomenon of how one person can have various identities within a single piece of writing.  To reprise my point: at the very least, three separate "you"s are always present in any memoir essay (or autobiographical poem or autobiographical story): the you that experienced the event in real life, the you that is the character experiencing the event in the essay, and the you that is the author controlling how the essay is written.  While the middle you is connected deeply and tangibly to the first and third yous, the person who experiences and the person who writes are so far removed from one another that at times--if not at all times--they feel like differentiated human beings.  Well, I've just read an article by Eric LeMay in the latest edition of the AWP Chronicle that gets right at this understood, but rarely talked about, phenomenon.  I recommend the essay to writers and non-writers, teachers and students, alike for its insight and its progressive pedagogical ideas.  LeMay begins his article with a review of the brief essay "Borges and Myself," written by none other than Jorge Luis Borges (or one of himselves).  Other than Wayne Booth's seminal study The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), which isolates a species of person known as The Ideal Author, "Borges and Myself" is the only bit of prose I can think of that accurately, and acutely, gets to the heart of a writer's divided identity.  As LeMay reminds us, in the essay, Borges's narrator delineates between the Borges who shops for coffee and has a fondness for hourglasses and the Borges who subsumes in all the rude fabric of life for the sake of his stories.  The former is certain he will be defeated and forgotten, taken over by the voracious, restless, ambitious latter.  Indeed, he ends with this classic summatiion of the problem: "Which of us is writing this page I don't know."

I remember how thrilled I was when I first encountered that essay as a freshman in a college composition class. I was a neophyte creative writer, to say the least, but the essay struck me as profoundly and stunningly true. Already true, even then, to my experience as a writer.  Why had no one written about this before?, I remember thinking.  And why don't we who try to write shout it from the mountaintops?

LeMay (that's him above) doesn't try to outdo Borges with an essay of his own about writerly identity.  What he does instead is explain how in his classroom at Ohio University he uses the Borges essay to encourage his students to conceive and define a writing identity for themselves.  Thusly, LeMay hopes to launch them more directly into a conscious writing life.  In short, he wants them to take their writing ambitions more seriously, so seriously that must be owned by a whole other self.  He starts this process by having them write a short essay, modeled on Borges's, about the Other who is the Writer who carries their name.  By LeMay's own admission some of the writing he gets as a result of the assignment is disappointing; and none of it, of course, can come close to Borges' psychological sophistication.  But the idea behind the assignment is both credible and tantalizing--and just damn innovative.  If you have access to the Chronicle take a look.  If you don't have access to the Chronicle, get access!  It really is that interesting a piece.


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