In my ongoing efforts to declutter and Feng Shui my house, I got rid of 96 more books in the past week. In the process, I tackled a bookshelf that I have so far mostly avoided, the one containing my massive World War II collection of books that I used as reference while writing seven historical fiction books set in that time period. I feel pretty certain I’m done with writing new stories about the war, although I may still adapt a few. All of my books were based on real people whom I interviewed, and all of my sources have passed away, so it feels like that chapter of my life has closed.
In some ways, I will always be a “World War II writer,” but in many ways I no longer am. And that’s the tricky thing about identity. Some aspects of one’s identity can be true and no longer true at the same time.
Part of the reason I couldn’t get rid of those books was my identification with my role as a historian. In my mind, “real” historians do not get rid of their books or their research. They hold onto them forever on dusty bookshelves or in overcrowded filing cabinets, and eventually they die and their heirs either donate their collections to the local university or throw them away. If I gave away some of my books, could I still consider myself a true historian? And was I ever really a true historian to begin with? I’ve always identified more with being a historical fiction writer who also had a history degree. But then again, don’t “real” writers also hold onto their books and research? Isn’t a huge private library the hallmark of a serious writer?
This inner battle with my own sense of identity is part of what kept me from getting rid of those books several times over the past year. But lately, it feels like something new might be coming my way. A new type of writing, or a new book. But it can’t arrive if there’s no space for it.
So, I did it. I cleared off three shelves in that bookcase and donated all those wonderful history books. I put a few small things on the shelves, but mostly I left them bare, as an invitation to whatever is coming next.
And now it feels so expansive in my office, as if those old books, those old obligations, those old regrets about the history books I never did write and the awards I never did win are no longer bearing down on me.
Identity can seem fixed at times (I’m a firstborn Leo raised in Idaho). But even the things that feel so undeniable can sometimes turn out to be untrue. Think about the people who’ve identified with a certain ethnic group all their lives, only to find out via DNA testing they’re not that at all. Think about the people who identified strongly with a certain religious or political group all their lives, only to one day leave it. Think about the people who hold dearly to a legend of family glory, only to find out their ancestor lied about that legend all along.
What is identity really, if not the story of ourselves? And aren’t stories supposed to evolve? Aren’t the main characters supposed to grow and change?
If this is my story, then it’s up to me to say how I identify, and it’s up to me to decide what feels true to me right now. I can choose to honor my old identities without feeling stuck in them. And I can choose to be open to whatever new identities might be coming my way in the future. But mostly, I must decide what feels good to me today. What lifts me up, rather than pins me down. What intrigues me, rather than feels already decided. What connects me to the world, rather than separates me.
I can choose to tell you how I identify, or I can keep it to myself. You can project how you think I identify, or how you think I should identify, and you go right ahead, but the only person writing this story is me.
It’s true, I have been a historian. I also never was a historian. And I’m still a historian. But as Gertrude Stein once said, “A very important thing is not to make up your mind that you are any one thing.” I’m excited to see who I’ll become next.
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