Cogito Ergo Sum Pizza Slices, or, How a Straight White Male Can Still Manage to Have an Identity Crisis, or, The Importance of Writing, Philosophy, and Friends

This blog is only partly about writing, but that’s okay. I’m the blogger. I hereby give myself permission.

I’ll be blunt, my experience currently muddling my way through a quarter life crisis post-university is in many ways a non-unique experience.

School relinquishes you of some responsibility for justifying who you are; at least, it did for me, one of those aloof, perfectionist, A-seeking students. As long as I was getting good grades, I was validated somewhat in terms of my identity as a scholar, as a student, as a writer (as was my field).

But school’s over. I graduated without the pomp of attending commencement and I got my degree in the mail and unceremoniously put it in a file folder, and now my wife and I own our first house and I’m working in my first “career”  job–and I’m not getting graded on any of it. None of it is quantified  or externally assessed at this point. (Wow that sounds so nihilistic. I’m not, really…)

pizza slicesI feel an emotional tension, an urge to say, “I don’t know what I want to be (as an adult),” or “Who am I now (that I’m not a student)?” or “Am I doing well?” But these, I think, are the wrong questions. Because what’s happening is not a subtractive process (“I’ve lost something of myself.”) or a substitutive process (“I’m somebody different now.”), but rather a dispersive one.

Instead of calling it a quarter life crisis, I’m going to get all erudite and call it an iconoclasm of the self, a forceful dispersion of the the I, and what makes it me. So yeah–identity.

We’re getting deep now, folks.  Do I smell marinara sauce?

Cogito Ergo Sum Pizza Slices
Having automatically assumed responsibility for my identity (by virtue of graduating), I feel I have entered a space where I can see the various pizza slices that have been, thus far, me (roll with it, folks). And being able to see these, I can see more clearly, I think, that not all these slices are congruent (not that they ought to be), and that there are some that I’d rather slough off as well as others that I really want to elaborate and explore, like the me that values scholarship, philosophy, fiction, poetry, critical theory and discourse; 3/4-sleeve shirts and slimmer pant legs; podcasts about echoic memory and Wittgensteinian philosophy on my drive to work and trips to the library to pick up books on critical theory and subscriptions to aggregators of long-form essays; deep thinking about ordinary things and the willingness to analyze my own assumptions and beliefs…

Whatever pizza slice(s) these characteristics represent, I’m now grappling with the potential emotional/social consequences of weighting some of them heavier than I have thus far. (And I know, to a great extent identity is fluid and transient and environmentally influenced and I’ve been unconsciously constructing it all along…but there’s a need in me for some intentionality here, and I believe there’s space for it.)

And none of this is to imply that I am of the character that heaves up and shuns his roots and family to go “find himself” or the kind that goes from conservative to epicurean. But this egoclasm has created a low-pressure zone producing a creative urge–a need–to reconstruct myself, or rather, to actively select myself.

Which creates a tension, right? A tension between the various familiar stakeholders in who I’ve been up until now.

This is the politics of identity.

(And forgive my pseudo-academic altiloquence elevating my feelings to seeming “importance”–what I’m going through, I know, is a pinprick compared to less privileged identity experiences–I’m just working this out.)

A Few Other Nuts Like Myself
One consequence of this political action, the embracing and pursuit of certain pizza slices over others is social in nature.

(Yes, I’m running with the pizza metaphor, oversimplistic though it is.)

Besides my wife and a few others, I have a threadbare web of people whose experience or background or interests make them jive with the sort of person(ality?) I want to be–with whom, for instance, I can engage in substantive discourse about the things I’m passionate about without putting myself into a socially combative or abrasive situation. This is because for so long my identity “constituency,” if you will, has been of one sphere–one which I made little to no effort on my own to append or modify with those of the sphere I was assimilating laissez-faire-style in college–my fault, I know. Now, having come to the point of a certain sort of departure, there seems to be no one (or a very few) to meet me where I want to go.

Ray Bradbury knew what I’m talking about. This video contains the following lines:

“You learn to live with your crazy enthusiasms which nobody else shares, and then you find a few other nuts like yourself, and they’re your friends for a lifetime. That’s what friends are, the people who share your crazy outlook and protect you from the world. Because nobody else is going to give a damn what you’re doing, so you need a few other people like yourself.”

Yes, Mr. Bradbury, sir–I want that.

And maybe I’m afraid of not having (or worse, finding) friends who share my “crazy enthusiasms” if I choose to accept and run with them.

Lots of factors–going to college after being homeschooled for 12 years, weird hesitancies to explore social media till recently, self-imposed, largely unconscious constraints on pursuing friendships with college peers, mixed up feelings about critical discussion till a few years ago, invisible pressures from family traditions–yes, lots of factors–have resulted in a really small network of people with whom I have what I’d call a “deep friendship.” Not much room to maneuver.

But man, there are some cool people out there. I joined the comment thread of a PBS Idea Channel video for the first time the other day, and people were actually interested in talking and thinking about, well…social capital and symbolic exchange… but anyway, I took a breath and said to myself, “Where have I been?”

I’ve been playing it safe with myself, that’s where. (That’s not a place)

<whisper>Focus on the grades!!!</whisper>

The result, I think, has been a delicate emotional gut. I’ll always be a highly sensitive introvert, but I’ve probably just made things worse by bottling up all the pizza slices of these identity artifacts and stored perceptions. I’ve been exposing myself to the emotions of identity compromise without actually acknowledging there was such a conflict.

Which is why writing and philosophy are so important to me.

Write What You Know (and Then Blow It Up)
Here’s the deal.

But this doesn’t mean just writing angsty fiction (or worse, poetry) for the feelz in some desperate search for self-imposed, ecstatic catharsis. What I’m really talking about is deep thought. Some people might call it “overthinking,” but I welcome the label. I prefer the word “philosophy,” however.

This is how Michael Sandel puts it: “[P]hilosophy teaches us, and unsettles us, by confronting us with what we already know.” At the core of deep thinking is a criticality that analyzes–breaks down–and asks questions about the things we take for granted.

Isn’t that what the best creative writing is all about? Let me elaborate (heavily) on Sandel’s quote:

The best writing (and reading) experiences teach us, unsettle us,  by confronting us, challenging us with what we already know; except when we look upon it, we find that what we thought we knew has been dissected and maimed, and when we move to reconstruct it, we find that it is impossible to align the edges exactly as they were, and sometimes it’s necessary to begin again, this time with the indelible memory of what was, what will never be quite the same again, but what is very likely improved.

You know, like Frankenstein if it were written by Jane Austen.

When was the last time you wrote an essay just to test a theory? When was the last time you took what you thought you knew about yourself or the world around you for certain and put it under the microscope–or someone else’s–just to see where exactly you stood? To see just what exactly you are?

That’s philosophy.

And–I think–it might just be what creative writing is really all about.

Also, I think it’s sort of what I’m doing these days. In the words of Bradbury, exploding ideas–picking up the pieces, beginning again.

What do you think about this idea of philosophy and creative writing–is there some ideal critical moment that a creative endeavor pursues? Or is this just so much marinara sauce?

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Jedd Cole

Jedd Cole is a writer and scholar of literature, language, theory and philosophy. He studied rhetoric, writing and Spanish at University of Cincinnati. He produces video essays on the Electric Didact YouTube channel: www.youtube.com/c/electricdidact. Find his fiction and other recent work at electricdidact.wordpress.com.

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