As you may know, I’m working on revising an anthology.
As you may not know, I originally wrote some of these pieces eight years ago (aka, when I was just barely a teenager). I’m discovering that I’ve changed a lot since I wrote them, and it’s weird to find another person speaking through my words.
Which means I have a problem. Well, more like a choice:
In my first year of university, I took a philosophy class called “Knowledge and Reality” which is a shorter way of saying:
“What is real? How do we know that it’s real or not? Do we actually know anything?”
It was super-abstract and fun to play around with in my head, but I didn’t ever think that any of it would be of use to me in that funny thing we like to call “real life”. And yet here I am, facing an entirely philosophical question:
Am I the same person I was eight years ago?
See, if I’m exactly the same person, then it doesn’t matter what I change. It will all still be me, and that’s really what matters.
If I’m not the same person, then I can’t impose my ideas upon my old material. I have to work to preserve that person I used to be, because that material comes from that person, and not me.
When we talked about this question in class, it seemed like there were only those two possible answers, like the situation was completely black and white. Either we are the same person over time, or we’re not, and my prof had this thing about saying that we’re not and wouldn’t allow a proper argument otherwise, which was frustrating.
What I’ve been thinking, though, is that this question can be answered in a far more nuanced way than my prof led everyone to believe, especially when you change the question:
To what degree am I the same person I was eight years ago?
What stays the same
When I originally put together all the poems and stories for this anthology, I was extremely worried about the result. There is a huge range of tone, all the way from laugh-out-loud funny to life-and-death serious.
Along with that, while the stories can be safely categorized as speculative fiction, the poetry can’t really be put into a category and have it all fit. Unless you count the fact that none of it rhymes as a category (I’ve only just managed to write rhyming poetry that doesn’t turn into a limerick by the second line), but I wouldn’t.
I spent hours angsting over the title alone, because I could not figure out what it was that tied all these stories together. In the end, I cheated and just used the title of one of the stories in it, because I could not figure it out.
And then I went through and read everything the day I started revising.
By the time I had finished, I realized that there was something that all these pieces had in common: me. Despite the fact that they span nearly half my life, there was something about all of those words that conveyed me, that indefinable essence of Thea.
“So, that’s it, isn’t it? You’re the same person you were eight years ago.”
Not exactly. The self that my voice conveys is the same today as it was then, but that’s not the only component to who someone is.
About a week ago, I revised the poem that I wrote eight years ago, and it was difficult. For one, my use of syntax and vocabulary have become considerably more sophisticated and, secondly, the way I looked at and categorized the world has become more complex and subtle. Since I didn’t want to rewrite the entire poem, I had to force myself to think again like I did when I originally wrote it so that the changes I made would still fit with the patterns of thought and word that were already established in it.
This was quite the mental exercise, make no mistake, but I enjoyed the challenge. Retaining a style of communication or a system of imagery seemed a simple decision to choose, and I liked how it would represent a step in my growth as a writer (while still being awesome).
The real problem came into play yesterday.
The story I was working on is another of my older ones, and I came across a passage in it that seemed to present the world in a way that I have found to be inaccurate. I have no problem with the rest of the story, as it not only presents something that I believe even more firmly to be true, but that one bit, those four lines are lacking. It’s not that they’re completely false, it’s just that they only present half of the picture -the only half I had known existed.
So, to what degree am I the same person I was eight years ago?
My voice is the same. My use of language is not. My ways of categorizing the world are not.
It should be simple, right? Anything in relation to my voice can be changed freely, but use of language should be preserved, as well as ways of categorizing the world.
But what if that categorization is simply not true?
I want to be honest in what I write. No, more than that, I demand honesty of myself. In fact, this is something that I have always insisted of myself, especially in the areas that really matter to me.
Not only that, I intended that story to be an encouragement to others, a call to disengage from broken and foolish ways of living and come back to life instead. I can’t do that honestly if I retain something that I now know is a part of the brokenness and foolishness. Which means that the crux of this decision is my ideal of honesty.
The problem of honesty
Suddenly, this whole problem becomes much easier. All of my earliest pieces are all about honesty, and that trend has continued through to the last thing I wrote (my Camp NaNo novel from last month). Truth is hugely important to me, and it always has been.
Which doesn’t mean I’ve answered my question, because now I have to think about where the honesty needs to be applied. When I decided to preserve certain things in that poem about a week ago, I wanted to keep an accurate picture of how I wrote at that time. Should I not then demand an accurate picture of how I believed when I wrote this story that I’m angsting over right now?
Some days, I really wish I hadn’t taken philosophy. It’s made me really good at asking nit picky questions.
A better definition of self
You know what? I’ve changed my mind about how to define the self, because I’ve been thinking about this all the wrong way.
Who we are has nothing to do with the cells in our body, how we communicate, our political or religious beliefs, who our friends and family are, or whether we like Coke better than Pepsi. It can be expressed in words, but it is not made up of them. It exists separately from all the activities of our mind and, while it does drive our actions, our actions never, ever drive who we are. It does not change and cannot change; the only thing that does change is our perception of it.
What I am trying to say with a story is a part of who I am. How I am saying it is not. How I am saying it only reflects my perception of who I am, and that perception isn’t permanent and can very easily be wrong. I am free to change how I express who I am because who I am will remain the same regardless of my expression.
For those of us who care about being our authentic selves, this is a big issue, so I want to say this directly to everyone else who has ever struggled with this problem:
You are free to change how you express who you are because who you are will remain the same regardless of your expression.
And that’s all there is to it.