Writing To Remember Who You Are

The other night, I was at a little old music venue called ABC NoRio on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, hypnotized by some drum-heavy abstract jazz improvisation, beer in hand, after a day of preparing a course I’m teaching this Fall. Sitting there in the audience I felt calm, enthralled, sort of perfect, actually, and it occurred to me: I am more myself at this moment than I have been in a long time.

When I moved to New York permanently, I took a year off from teaching after nine years as a lecturer, and although I had been heavily involved in the live music scene in Australia, I rarely go to see a show these days. I had let two of my great passions slip away from me during the immigration process. Why? I have no idea.

Maybe I was stressed out and overwhelmed. Maybe my interests diversified. Maybe I was distracted. Maybe it was timing or sheer necessity. Whatever the reasons, in my moment of clarity, I remembered how important teaching was to my relationship with the world, and how much I was at home in a room full of incredible music.

I had a lot of weird jobs before I started my PhD and entered into the weird world of academia. At 15, I was a real estate receptionist and copywriter. At 16, I worked in a pharmacy where I administered the methadone program on weekends and trained as a cosmetics consultant. At 18, I started my own co-op independent theatre company. Over the years that followed, I did marketing for charities, I was head of publicity for a blues and roots record label, I did some freelance music management and promotion, and I even squeezed in a Master’s degree.

Although I knew I was a writer from a very young age, it took a lot of experimentation and experience over many years to realize my commitment to teaching and music, to break those commitments, and then to relocate them.

Do you remember what it was like to be 16? Before you went through everything you’ve been through now? You were working off rash reactions for the most part, taking care of your immediate needs in haze of uncertainty. We all are prone to returning to this state when things get real, especially in our professional lives.

In making decisions about your future self and your career trajectory, it can help to revisit the lessons you learned enroute to the present; to remember who you are and what you know about the world. This month’s exercise will help you do that. Numerous writers have published their own versions of this as a quick Google search will reveal. Please share your writing in the comments… And, enjoy!

Reflective Writing Exercise 2: Letter to My 16 Year Old Self

When To Do It:

When you have some time and space to yourself.


45 minutes

The Point:

It’s easy to get lost in a haze of distractions from all the things we’ve learned in life. We make decisions out of necessity sometimes without taking into account what is most important to us. This exercise is about identifying the things we know about ourselves in order to remember what’s important and make better choices moving forward.


Write an alphabetized letter to your 16 year old self.

Find one keyword pertaining to your life for every letter of the alphabet, and write a sentence or two of advice to your 16 year old self about each one.

Bear in mind that you’re writing for your younger self. Be gentle and honest and, where possible, retain a sense of humor about the topics you’re exploring.

For example:

Dear Tara,

A is for Art. Just because you’re better at writing doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experiment and learn painting and sculpture.

B is for Bastards. The world is mostly populated with these. Some of them are quite charming and attractive — beware.*

Try to get all the way through from A to Z.


Once you’re finished, hold onto your letter. We all revert to our 16 year old selves sometimes, especially when we’re feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable. So, the next time you feel in doubt about a career or life decision, pull this letter out and reread it to find clues on what to do next.

*Example from: Mokhtari, T. The Bloomsbury Introduction to Creative Writing. (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015)


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Dr. Tara Mokhtari is a poet, screenwriter, professor of creative writing, communications and literature, author of The Bloomsbury Introduction to Creative Writing, and Idealist’s resident Storyteller.
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    • pigbitinmad
    • October 30, 2015

    The reason I am not myself is because it would be absolutely fatal in this era of the Stepford Wife as HR person. I have a background similar to yours (Record Label Publicist) and later decided to try a second career as a librarian (huge mistake by the way). Actually, I never would have tried that if the economy had not completely tanked the first time in 2001. I would have been happy in some dumb office job, but the possibility of being a Greeter at Walmart caused so much panic, fear and upheaval that I actually got a masters degree. I thought it was where losers like me could go but it turns out to be filled with the same age-ist, aggressive, alpha women Stepford Wives as Corporate America (I don’t think this was always the case but is an outgrowth of gentrification on steroids). So I realize there is not an ice cube’s chance in Hell of me getting hired anyplace where I actually have to interview. And that was in 2001 when I was only 40 years old. Fast Forward to the Hell that is the year 2015 in our Disrupted Economy.

    We now have to answer dumb questions like this:

    1. “Where do you see yourself in five years?” (A. “Dead or living under a bridge” or “If I were truly clairvoyant, I would use these skills to dupe the suckers that are born every minute and make a lot more money than you are offering.”)

    2. “What is your ‘theory of reference’?” (A. “Throw enough $#!T against the Wall. Something is going to stick.”)

    3. “What makes you proud?” (A. If it is not inventing the Polio Vaccine or the cure for cancer there is no reason for anyone to be that full of themselves.)

    4. “Describe a time when you used your communication skills to solve a problem?” (A. “When an annoying customer once endlessly tweaked a help wanted ad. I told her to “EFF off” and the problem went away”).

    5. “Describe a time you were creative?” (“This for an acquisitions librarian job, not an ad agency or fashion house”).

    Actually this last one was a joke because the phone interviewer told me that my qualifications closely match the job ad, but he was just calling to see if I was a “Culture Fit.” Considering this guy knew nothing about librarianship and was 25 (and I am 54). I never heard from them again.

    You could see how these real life scenarios do not lend themselves well to cookie cutter questions.

    Yet, I know I would be the best supervisor in the world to work for because I always find easier and faster ways to get things done and I am not so full of myself as to harass good workers because they make a tiny little mistake. However, my idea of the ideal work place would be something like “The Howard Stern Show.” Can you imagine though if I said that on a job interview?

    I read a funny story on the internet that one of the gunmen in Bonnie and Clyde’s gang actually got a job working as a security guard at a school. He was a perfectly good employee. This would never ever happen in today’s world where incidentally, in spite of the extensive background checking, we seem to have a school shooting at least once a week.

    Today you need more security clearance to work at McDonalds than you did to work at the Pentagon. And god forbid there is even the tiniest misdemeanor, you are barred from work forever.

      • idealistara
      • November 2, 2015

      Oh my. I sort of object to your usage of ‘absolutely fatal’, but I get your point. I’d like to think that there’s some employer somewhere out there who would genuinely appreciate you saying in an interview that your ideal workplace would be something like the Howard Stern Show. Victoria will probably kill me for saying that. (Forgive me, Victoria.) But seriously, I know it seems like a luxury, but when’s the last time you applied for a job you really suspected you’d actually love to do?

      1. Tara, I’m actually in agreement with you, but with a caveat. If the place at which you are interviewing is close to that of the Howard Stern Show, why NOT mention it in your response? In a perfect world, we would all be in our ideal workplace environments. Actively seek out the environments that would be the best fit for you. If you know that you’ll thrive in an environment similar to that of the Howard Stern show, look for those environments. During your interview, outline why this type of workplace is a good fit for you.

        If you are interviewing at an organization with a more conservative work culture, mentioning the details of your ideal work environment is not going to bode well for you if it doesn’t match what they offer. Prior to the interview, do your best to know the reasons why you are willing to make concessions in regards to your ideal workplace. What else is that organization offering that is appealing to you? Mention those things on your interview instead.

    • Ursula McClure
    • November 9, 2015

    Thanks, I needed this today, in this very moment…

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