Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

As long as I can remember, I have been trying to figure out who I am. In high school, I thought I had solved my identity problem by falling in love with math. But that expectation turned out to be overly optimistic. Life remained a mystery. In college, I moved to physics, hoping the laws of the material universe held the key, but Newton’s laws and Maxwell’s equations made me no wiser about who I was. I broadened my inquiry to include history, literature, and music. Even then, I still couldn’t answer the simple question, “Who am I?”

In my 20s I turned to spirituality, in my 30s to career, in my 40s to self-help and psychology, and in my 50s I thought I could write my way out of my jam. But like scratching an itch on a phantom limb, no matter how hard I rubbed, I was never able to relieve the pressure. It was only when I began to read memoirs and write my own that I began to find answers to my perennial question.

To write a memoir, I peer into my memory and pull together facts and scenes. Then I watch myself take shape on the pages. Within that story emerge the components of self and identity that have eluded me for so long. Depending on the angle of vision, I discover many dimensions of self, each one offering insight, validation, and a different way to make sense of my journey on earth. Here are ten of those aspects of self that memoir reading and writing has helped me discover.

“Coming of Age” — the emerging story of self

Memoirs about Coming of Age explore the period when a young person tries to understand who they are supposed to become. First they learn about themselves from parents, siblings, neighbors, and friends. Then they crawl, stumble, and race in various directions, until they finally find ground firm enough to support their weight. Here are several Coming of Age memoirs that have shown me how other people did it.


Frank McCourt, “Angela’s Ashes.” McCourt grew up in Ireland with a father steeped in alcohol. The book is a scene by scene portrayal of this journey of a boy trying to learn who he is and how he is supposed to head out into life.

Jeanette Walls, “Glass Castle.” She went from ragamuffin adventurer child to successful television personality, two extremely different identities. Thanks to great writing, she turns her struggle into a wonderful read, but underneath it all, she is traveling the same road we all must, to go from zero to 20.

Mark Salzman, “Lost in Space.” Salzman shares his obsessive approach to growing up, learning Karate and Chinese language on his journey from boy to man.

Haven Kimmel, “A Girl Named Zippy.” An ordinary girl from a small town proves that growing up, even when uneventful, contains plenty of drama and importance.

My Coming of Age

I had a relatively healthy childhood. I lived with both my parents and regularly visited both sets of grandparents who lived a half hour from my home. Neither of my parents were addicted, or abusive, or suffered from mental illness. We weren’t too poor or too rich. My studious habits and love of science fit perfectly with my upbringing as a pharmacist’s son. By the time I left for college, my self-image had fixated on a specific and well-formed plan. I was convinced that it was right and even imperative that I become a doctor. My older brother was already in medical school and I thought all I had to do was follow his lead.

Writing Prompt

Describe your own Coming of Age. When you reached early adulthood, what messages about yourself had you incorporated into the story of who you were and where you were heading?

To be continued
In future blogs, I will describe other ways memoirs have helped their authors answer the question “Who am I?” and I will continue to explore my own journey.

To read more about the psychological notion of self-concept, read my article on Mental Health Survival Guide

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my short, step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

One thought on “Who Am I? 10 ways memoir reading and writing helps clarify identity

  1. Pingback: Self-concept and memoirs: The power of purpose | Memory Writers Network

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