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

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to use your story to heal, connect and inspire, .

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 despite my proficiency in advanced placement calculus, 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 left me ignorant 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 ways that memoir reading and writing have helped me discover my self.

“Coming of Age” — the Journey to adulthood

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 all about a boy learning 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 knew i would become a doctor. My older brother was already in medical school and I thought all I had to do was follow his lead. When my plan fell apart, so did I, sending me on a decade-long journey to find a new plan.

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?

More ways that reading and writing memoirs help you find your identity:

Melting pot and cultural identity

Many memoirs teach about the power of the Melting Pot – leaving behind your, or your ancestors’ identity and finding one you can share in your new, blended culture.

Write: What was your own journey, and the journey of your parents and grandparents to identify as members of a modern culture?

Shifting sands of time

After you reach adulthood, and embark on the true journey of you, the world keeps changing, the people around you change, and even your body changes. All these developments require modifications and amendments to your story-of-self.

Write: What changes in self-concept have taken place through the course of your adult life?

Spirituality and religion

While the traditional view of “religion” placed you firmly within the definition of your religion of birth, many of us in the 21st century seek our concept of self in a more universal set of beliefs known as “spirituality.” By writing your story and reading others, you can find and define your identity along these lines

Healing and rebuilding from traumas

Writing a memoir offers you an opportunity to change your frame of reference from being the victim of your own life, to becoming its author. By crafting the words that describe your evolution as a person, you can gain control and develop inner strength and wisdom to help you heal and resolve issues from the past.

Write: What events or circumstances in your life do you regret? Instead of trying to erase them from memory, use your creative mind to forge a story of survival, courage, and wholeness.

See my article on the recovery of self-concept after trauma by clicking here.

Re-storying after loss

After you’ve lost someone dear to you, your life must go on without that person. Reconstructing your self-concept in their absence requires deep work, sometimes real convalescence as you reshape your story-of-self.

The identity of geography

While we think our self-concept goes with us wherever we go, many memoirs tease out the profound influence place can have on our image of who we are. In Song of the Plains by Linda Joy Myers, and Ruby Slippers by Tracy Sealey, the authors explore the journey from heartland to coast and back again. In Jew Store by Stella Suberman, the family shifts its identity from urban to rural America.

The evolving relationship to gender and sexuality

In my younger days, sorting out all the variables of gender identity and sexuality seemed like a great puzzle. Through the decades, so many more options and variables have been added. From the tidal wave of sexual liberation in the 60s, to the cultural shift in male-female relations in the second half of the twentieth century, to the great blurring of gender identity in the 21st century, our relationship to these supposedly fixed features keeps changing. And I’ve found yet another shift in my relationship to gender and sexuality in older years. To find the true you  beneath the every changing sands of time, what better way than authoring your story.

Go wider and deeper in your relationship to the “Other”

Your self concept exists in relationship to the people around you. In an community or primitive tribe, you would have defined your Self as “someone who belongs to this group.” In today’s churning, shrinking world, we are challenged to include “outsiders.” Since our group is now diverse, it throws our own identity into question. If “I am a member of this group” I need to understand who these people are. Memoirs take you inside the experience of this enormous diversity and turn your global neighbors from strangers into friends. In the process, your own notion of self-identity expands, extending beyond the cultural constraints of people who look exactly like you.

Deepen your insight into the introspective voice

The only way to know other people’s thoughts is either by what they say, or what we guess. When I was growing up and trying to understand people, I read literature, which unfortunately only gave me insight into the characters invented by fiction writers. By developing a familiarity with the memoir genre, you are ushered into the introspective world of the people around you. And by writing your own memoir, you challenge yourself to become more aware of the narrative you tell yourself.

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.