Lesson 1: Writing Identity Workshop (January 2016)

Note: Please click all the hyperlinks to watch or read content. 

Welcome to our first lesson! What exactly constitutes identity? Race? Ethnicity? Gender? Sexual Preference? I’ve been exploring the idea of identity before I even knew the word for it: as a child I shuffled between two families, my mother’s Mexican family on the U.S.-Mexican border and my father’s family whom are, for the most part, Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem. My mother herself converted from Catholicism to Judaism before I was born, and while I was raised in an observant Jewish household, the influences of border culture and my Mexican relatives continually made an impression on how I viewed the world. Those two very different geographies were never as simple as leaving for another, and this made for quite an often contradictory, sometimes explosive evolution of self as I negotiated more than just identity among my extended families. Uneasy, uncertain, devil may care: that has been my world. 




After many years of looking toward the pasts of my heritages, I have come to the conclusion that identity cannot solely be measured in existing identifiers as race, religion or ethnicity (to name a few). Identity is an act of will, and it does not exist in a vacuum; no matter how resolute our individual beliefs, we each react to the world and sometimes, we change, both ourselves and our own point of departure. 

This week we will focus on the idea of Belief. Let’s take a look at NPR’s popular series “this i believe,” which has published and produced essays on the idea of Belief, ranging from a 14 year old’s experience with Asperger’s Syndrome to novelist Amy Tan’s making peace with her belief in ghosts  to one doctor’s creed that “Health is A Human Right.”

Feel free to explore the series, reading or listening to the different essays, before continuing onto the selected works.

Reading Assignment #1: The Shawl” by Cynthia Ozick




Questions to consider:

(1) “The Shawl” is the first part of a novella written about women’s experiences and memories in the concentration camps of World War II. Do you believe Ozick makes that clear without being explicit? Next, write 1-2 sentences explaining who each of the following characters is: Stella, Rosa and Magda.

(2) What are the relationships among the 3? Does Ozick make these relationships clear?

(3) What does the shawl symbolize? How does its symbolism/fucntion change?

(4) How does the idea of belief bind the 3 characters together? How does it destroy them?



Reading Assignment #2: Drown by Junot Diaz


CAMBRIDGE, MA - SEPTEMBER 20:  Author Junot Diaz, 2012 MacArthur award recipient on September 20, 2012 in Cambridge, MA.  (Photo by Tsar Fedorsky for Home Front Communications)

Questions to consider:

(1) What themes did you find in this story

(2) How would you describe the storyteller’s voice? (For instance, he refers to Beto as a pato, which means “duck” in Spanish but here is a Dominican slur for homosexual; however, Diaz just not translate the word in the story. Why might this be?)  How does it make the story more original or authentic? Find 3 lines that seem especially significant in terms of voice.

(3) In what different ways does the speaker “drown?” Are these “little deaths”? How does each drowning change the character through the story?

(4) How does Diaz complicate his protagonist’s beliefs on manhood, masculinity, machismo and sexuality? Relationships? 


 Writing Exercises 

#1: Read or listen to 7-year-old Tarak McLain’s “Thirty Things I Believe.” Now, looking back at your own past (whether back to you own childhood or as recent as a year ago), list 10-15 things you no longer believe in. They can range from small to large in significance, and of course are not limited to religious beliefs.

#2: Choose 7 out of the 15, and write 1-3 sentences explaining why, where and/or how you lost these beliefs. If you need to explain more for some, that’s fine.

#3: Choose 5 out of the 7, and write 1-3 sentences how losing these beliefs has affected you as a person and a writer now. How are you different?  How has your writing changed? Again, if you need to explain more for some than others, that’s fine.

Once you’ve completed these exercises, review in depth your answers to all 3 exercises.


Writing Assignment #1

Using your answers from the previous 3 exercises, write a monologue about belief(s) lost. You can focus on one of belief in particular, or you can explore multiple beliefs.  Since this is the first assignment, I’m leaving this very open. Word count is also open, but should be no more than 1500 words.


Guidelines, Submissions & Formatting for Writing Assignment 1

  • Due Date: Sunday, January 24th6 pm.
  • Submission Link: Submit to the FORUM (see below).
  • Submission Format: Attach an MS Word document. Please put your name, address, email, website (if applicable), and phone number on page one in the top right corner. Page two and forward should have in the top right corner your last name and page number. 
  • Forum: Upload your course-created work to your course and month forum so that the other students and I can read your work and give you feedback on your answers. Make sure to leave feedback for other students– you can leave questions, comments, suggestions, whatever you like. MAKE SURE YOU ARE UPLOADING YOUR WORK TO THE CORRECT FORUM AND COURSE.   
  • Please make sure to contact me directly with any questions regarding assignments and technology. Contact me at newyorkrosebud@gmail.com   


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