I was sitting outside of a cafe in Los Angeles when I saw him out of the corner of my eye. Every step seemed so labored, and the wheels of his walker scuffed against the sidewalk before he plopped down into a seat a few feet away from me with a resounding thud.
He pulled a battered, five-star spiral notebook from his laptop case, but it just lay there unopened in front of him.
I could feel him staring at me. Or at least at the book I was writing in—seeping in purple pen with asterisks, arrows and little notes crammed in the margins here and there. It was all part of my productive summer plan to take a stab at my thesis reading list at night after working at my internship all day. But every attempt to focus on elaborate academic jargon tucked into long-winded sentences ultimately devolved into shameless people-watching and too many hours spilling ink into a journal.
The minute I stopped scribbling, took my earphones out and looked up from my book, he started talking to me as if on cue—asking me about what I was reading (feminist literary criticism), why I was writing in it so much (because I was pretending to actually understand it), why I was even reading it (senior thesis), what my project was about (long story) and where I was working (at a feminist magazine down the street).
But then his voice suddenly shifted in tone, as if to mark a clear departure from our previous small-talk-cum-pseudo-interview or, rather, two strangers who will doubtfully ever meet again telling each other about their lives in a coffee shop.
And he asked me, “Do you write?”
It was the sort of question that has two alternate meanings: Do you write or do you write? What he meant was, what kinds of things do you write, while also giving off the ever-slight sense of mutual understanding.
As it turns out, the old man was in fact a writer, having published a few mystery/crime novels under a pen name. I quickly copied down his “name” and the titles of his novels on a blank page in the book I was reading while he described in great detail how he came to choose his pseudonym and how it related to his life. We talked for a while more about writing, creativity and finding the “story”—why writers write and what makes the struggle of translating experiences, people and lived moments into words so remarkably all consuming and, for lack of a better word, addicting.
Then he headed right. I turned left and walked back home.
Later that night, I looked up his books and scrolled down to the section about the author. But, as I read his bio, I realized that I didn’t know his full name. I only knew his pen name, and, as real as it seemed there in that moment on the screen, his biography was nothing more than an assumed identity. I felt cheated somehow. Cheated and intrigued.
In full disclosure, identity is one of those questions that never fails to send my head spinning or keep me up at night. The inability to pin down the notion of who a person is or even the impossibility of knowing ourselves seems so pressing to me like a riddle to be solved with one lurking, distinctive truth.
But if I’m being honest, maybe my preoccupation with the “I” of identity is more about trying to reject who I’ve been in order to arrive at some sort of idea about who I am.
I’ve always kept journals, and with that also comes the terrifying reminder of each distinct stage of my life—stages that can be split up in “pre” this and “post” that. I think of the person I was when I was writing each version of myself and how that same genuine realness now in retrospect feels so false, each one like a borrowed identity to bide my time until I find the truer one.
As a freshman, I approached college with the intention to “recreate” myself. I wanted to be more social, outgoing and confident, and, as unfortunate as it is to admit, I wanted to just “fit in.” Now, it’s safe to say that I no longer want those same things. And it’s also safe to say that not wanting to “fit in” made me start writing again, to write a new “I” literally and, well, also figuratively.
It’s not that I needed to abandon or cast off parts of myself, but, rather, rewrite and revise who I thought I knew I was. Even as I write this now, “I” am shifting under my own feet. I don’t know if I can ever be quite sure who exactly I am or which version of myself is more authentic, more “true” or more real than the last.
The fact is we are never done becoming ourselves. We have so many lives—plural—to live, unmistakably different and compliant in their own way. And, in an odd sense, thinking about the old man with the pen name reminds me of just that: how utterly fragile the line is between who we are and who we are capable of molding ourselves into becoming.
Danielle Nelson is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Send Danielle a message on Twitter @elleeenel.