Several years ago, when I was still living in Texas, I took a writing workshop taught by my friend Shelly. I’ve forgotten most of the workshop’s content (sorry, Shelly!), but I remember one writing exercise. We began with the phrase “A person who…” and created a one- or two-sentence description of a character, using telling details. Then we went around the circle and read our descriptions aloud.
I’ve thought of that line occasionally over the years, because I often describe myself, or someone else, as “a person who.”
I am a person who reads (on average) two or three books a week. I am a person who collects black rollerball pens and lined journals with whimsical, colorful covers. I am a person who drinks a cup of tea every single morning, winter or summer, rain or shine, preferably brewed in my favorite cobalt blue mug. (I am also a person who loves a good daily routine.)
Some of these descriptors, like the ones above, are true and even illuminating. But they can also be limiting.
For example: I thought I was a person who didn’t like hip hop (until I recently joined the ranks of Hamilton fans). I was a person who rarely spent money on fresh flowers, until I discovered how much joy they bring me (and how affordable they can be). I struggled mightily with a professional identity crisis after being laid off last year – because suddenly, I was no longer a person who worked at Harvard, or who had a job at all. (I have reclaimed both of those descriptors, though, and I’m deeply happy about that.)
Some aspects of my identity are fundamental and unlikely to disappear altogether: I am a reader, a writer, a musician, a person of faith. I am also a daughter, a sister, a wife, a friend. But I’d argue that it’s worth considering how our assumptions can influence the stories we tell ourselves. If I am a person who has firmly entrenched likes and dislikes, or even prejudices, I risk missing out on new experiences, new friends, new ways of believing and being.
I still find Shelly’s exercise useful in thinking about fictional characters. But for my own part, it might be worth pausing before I say I am (or she is or he is) a person who does this or likes that. Because I want to be a person who is open to surprises. Even from myself.
(NB: I am also a person who is going on vacation, so I’m taking the next week off from the blog. See you back here soon, friends.)