For me, identity has always been an improv. I was named after my father, only to find years later that his name was actually Bert. I went by my middle name Joy until high school, when they enrolled me in the girls’ gym class—I didn’t realize my good fortune at the time. Even at that point I had difficulty remembering if my name was Joy Conrad or Conrad Joy. Even now, I sometimes pronounce it Con-rad, sometimes Cnrd.
And, while I think I can see what drives people to find their roots or a tribal identity, my imperative has always been to escape mine. I got out of Iowa. I haven’t seen any relatives (except my kids) since my mother’s funeral. At my father’s demise, I met four half-sisters, had a nice drinking bout with them (a fitting tribute to my father), but never had any desire to see them again. I prefer to see myself as a singularity, albeit a fairly normal one.
Not that I lack the urge to be part of a tribe. I have great hunger to belong—as most of us do, I think, But I’ve realized that I’m very shy—except on stage, where I can either be someone named Leonard or Lear, or a highly edited version of myself. I’ve been part of diverse sub-cultures, but always gravitate to the periphery of the campfire. Glad to be here, though I’m not entirely here. For some, the social world expands as one ages; for me, I shrink more and more into the keyboard. Or perhaps I revert to a high school version of myself, standing at the party hoping someone might approach, but—guess what?—they don’t.
Still, those of us for whom identity is an improv are privileged in a way. At best, a self-image is a mask in the Dionysian sense: a channel that evokes what you might not otherwise be able to access. High heels make you feel more elegant, a mustache more of a shyster, whatever. But if that mask welds itself into your face, claims that itself is the entirety of YOU, slaps itself on your Facebook page, then— Well, then you become a secondary character in my next novel.
The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on . . .
One hopes it does, anyway, rather than having to stay after school and write I am me a thousand times with a crumbling piece of chalk.