Annmarie Steffes, Associate Director
A few weeks into 2023, here at the University Writing Center, we are already abuzz with thrilling conversations about writing. I don’t know about you, but for me, the new year and the start of a new semester hold the wonderful promise of new beginnings. I daydream about being someone else, or at least a better version of myself: Annmarie 2.0. For instance, in 2022, I vowed to become chef Annmarie, whipping up unburnt baked goods weekly and, of course, using all the veggies in the fridge long before they wilt in despair.
If you wonder if I ever achieve these goals, the answer is no I do not. You probably saw that coming. Researchers could easily use me as one data point proving that New Year’s resolutions do not work.
But here’s the thing about creating these new identities: they do lead me to experiment with new habits. In my efforts to become a chef, I mustered the courage to roast a whole chicken, to make broth from the carcass, and then to concoct a soup (without a recipe no less). I could not have had the courage for those tasks if I had not first envisioned myself as a chef. The fantasy that I had of myself as a future Gordon Ramsey allowed me to take risks and venture into territory I would never have explored otherwise.
In the Writing Center, we often ask writers to imagine their audience for their text. Who are you writing to? What are the expectations of your audience? What background or experiences might they have and how does that influence their perspective? This sort of daydreaming has led me to write more compelling prose as I aim to foster a relationship with the person on the receiving end of my paper.
But, what if we as writers spent time imagining other identities for ourselves? In my appointments, I often hear people visiting us for the first time apologizing for being a “bad writer” or say, as Kendyl and Maddy said last year, that they are not writers at all. Believing that “bad writer” or “not a writer” is an unchangeable fact about us limits our writing strategies and narrows our ambitions.
And so, I encourage you to think about what new writing identity you might try adopting and performing this spring semester. You may not believe it yet but playing the part might prompt you to develop new habits, take more risks, and shift what you think is possible for yourself. Let’s say I am writing a research paper about climate change. How might my writing change when instead of seeing myself as an amateur determined to showcase all my knowledge to my professor, I imagine myself to be a climate change expert writing my action plan to a panel of key government and business leaders? I would state my views more assertively, treat sources as my peers rather than merely authority figures, and strive to make my proposal attractive to those in power. I approach my writing differently.
In addition to inspiring a dose of confidence, role playing writerly identities can help you understand other points of view, thereby cultivating a more empathetic attitude and writing more nuanced arguments. For instance: How might I write this essay if I positioned myself as an opponent of this social or political issue rather than an advocate for it? Or perhaps: What might I write if I imagined myself as a specific person in the debate or this one particular theorist? Everything we write does not have to be the end-all be-all of what we believe; we can embody different positions and attitudes, try them on for size, jump up and down, wiggle around in them, see how they fit.
Now, I do not advocate for inauthenticity, nor do I recommend never writing from you own embodied reality. What is considered formal or correct academic writing is often middle-class, standard white English and prizes certain evidence, experience, or support over other kinds. Higher education needs diversity of viewpoints and identities to challenge this hierarchy and offer important correctives. But reimagining your identity as an author can be a useful process to clarifying what your writing identity actually is, apart from what you believe your professor wants it to be.
As a teacher myself, I know that faculty play an important role in creating an educational environment that allows for students to play and explore who they might be as writers. In their 2015 book Hospitality and Authoring: An Essay for the English Profession, Richard and Janis Haswell challenge teachers to trust the student’s writing and imagine the singularity of the person behind it, reading the choices of text in a way that “seeks the conditions that might have understandably or humanely led to it” (92). When we see complicated and complex jargon, for instance, don’t assume that students cannot write; they are trying to embody the person of the chemist, the engineer, the humanities scholar using the examples given to them, and isn’t that what we want? Guide them on how to adopt that identity with more credibility or challenge them to write from a myriad of perspectives.
We might not be a Joan Didion, a Herman Melville, a James Baldwin, or an Isabel Allende yet—but we also might surprise ourselves.