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Q-and-A: Author Eric Wilson on how to create an authentic identity in an increasingly fake world
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Today, people have more ways than ever to express themselves through social media, blogs and other outlets. With the swipe of a smartphone, two-thirds of Americans can choose a variety of ways to tell the world who they are or what makes them unique.

But how authentic the identities people project are online or offline is an increasingly slippery notion, says Wake Forest University English professor Eric G. Wilson.

In his new book, Keep It Fake: Inventing an Authentic Life, Wilson argues a persons individual identity is a work in progress, and its harder than ever to craft an individual sense of self with the rise of social media and a 24-hour news cycle.

Wilson, a husband and father of one, weaves his struggle of defining his identity into the idea that people can craft their identities for different parts of their lives, not to simply fake it till you make it, but to enhance and enrich their lives.

In Wilsons case, this meant creating a new identity to help him be the best father possible to his young daughter.

After a long battle with bipolar disorder that sunk him into a deep depression after his daughters birth, Wilson created a new facet to his identity he called Crazy Dad a version of Wilson that was silly, fun and playful with his daughter rather than crippled by a fear of failing to be a good father.

A constructed identity allows us to imagine the concept we want to be, Wilson said. If you imagine life as being thrown off the cliff into the ocean, gravity is going to pull you down no matter what you do. Those are givens you cant change. But you can decide how youre going to fall.

This week, Wilson spoke to us about his book, how people create their identities and how everything from social media to the popularity of cosmetic surgery intrudes on our most sacred creation: Ourselves.

What was your goal in writing this book?

One was to simply understand my own search for identity. Growing up, my parents always told me, Be yourself, and when I got to college, I had this idea that now that I was in college, I was going to find myself. Both of those pieces of advice were based on the assumption that theres some sort of stable identity inside us, that if we work hard enough and find, then we would be content.

So I started studying the idea that identity is not something we find, but something we make. Even on a neurological level, its been proven that the left brain is the part of the brain thats called the "meaning making" part. It takes the raw data that the right brain takes in shapes it around a story to give it a meaningful narrative.

Its like were constantly creating a novel in which were the main character. Its the same with memory as your circumstances change, your sense of yourself changes as you remember and emphasize different things at different ages.

For me, it became a very hopeful idea. Ive struggled a lot with mental illness and bipolar disorder. It was like a little tyrant inside my head that was telling me things like I could never be a good father. So my therapist said, Why dont you change the narrative of how your bipolar disorder works and think about it another way? I came up with this idea that I would stop trying to be a good parent whos only authoritative and responsible, and I was going to play to my strengths of being silly and funny. I called him Crazy Dad. My daughter loved it, and I loved it, and it allowed us to connect.

Just think about our culture: We like to fashion ourselves as a country where we know what authenticity and sincerity are. Our heroes in Hollywood are straight shooters who cut through the B.S. and we hate politicians who we think are simulating the Slick Willies (Bill Clinton) and Tricky Dicks (Richard Nixon). But at the same time, were constantly creating false identities on Facebook, plastic surgery is more and more popular, we watch satirical news shows and we seem to love reality shows, but deep down we know those shows are often scripted. But what I say is, its OK that we cant really locate or agree on what reality is or that our idea of ourselves changes. What matters is how we make the world meaningful to ourselves.

How do you define an authentic life? In your book you describe it as a relative term.

Yes. For me, authenticity is being aware that our identity is something we construct and taking ownership of that, take responsibility for that. In other words, you write your own script and, like an actor, you commit to that script. As oppose to saying, I am what I am, and theres nothing I can do about it in a weird way, thats inauthentic because youre sort of locked into a stable idea of self that simply isnt true. But if you accept that fact that a sense of self is something we make and take charge of that self and that story and become responsible for your choices, thats what authenticity is.

What do you think makes life less authentic and is it less authentic now than it used to be?

I think that because of technology and the virtual worlds we inhabit on the Internet and through social networking, theres more opportunity in our current culture than previously to live through fabrications that are more distant than our physical circumstances.

So, I may live in small rural town, I may not be the best-looking guy in the world, but I can create anything I want to be on social media and that idea can stand for me. Plastic surgery also allows us to construct more artificial identities than in the past. A lot of people might say thats a good thing, but I think there are degrees. You can go too far. The goal is to create identities that are close to your physical circumstances in order to connect to those around you as oppose to creating more virtual realities that may isolate you because youre living more in social media and less in your own physical circumstances.

So, whats the difference between constructing an identity and just lying?

There are many different forms of deception and many kinds of lies. A lie is a fiction we create to gain an advantage, usually over other people. I would say thats a negative form or harmful form of artifice because it doesnt connect us to people, it alienates us.

To give you an example, the writer James Frey (author of the addiction memoir A Million Little Pieces), he writes this memoir, and then it turns out he made up a lot of stuff in his memoir, and it was a scandal. But if you think about another writer like, say, the nature writer Annie Dillard, who wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It's supposed to be nonfiction, and the scene she opens with is about this tomcat thats been out fighting all night and she described how it jumps on her with its bloody paws and how the paw prints look like stars its her way of talking about the beauty and violence of nature. But she borrowed that experience from another writer, yet we dont take her down like James Frey.

Frey chose to write in the genre of confession, so therefore the reader has to be able to trust the writer, otherwise its a violation, and he should be criticized. Whereas Annie Dillard has chosen another genre where theres more space for leeway there because the idea is that Dillard is choosing episodes that are symbolic and the ultimate goal is to connect her audience with nature. So its a less destructive narrative and were more forgiving of that.

Its the same with our lives and our identities: If our goal is to connect with others and were close to our physical circumstances, if we dont deny our own limitations whether its our DNA, body shape or mental illness what were doing is finding another way to connect to the people and world around us. If you create a narrative thats so far removed from yourself and your circumstances, that will lead to sorrow and anxiety because youre dividing yourself from others with a deception and thats destructive.

What role does the media play in crafting an individual identity?

If you think of the film The Matrix, right? The idea of that movie is that were all living in a truly virtual world. In a way we are because were all so shaped and influenced by what we see in the media, but the way to take charge of that is to just know that were being shaped and come up with our own ways of shaping our own sense of self.

Now more than ever before because were so inundated with media images on TV, advertising, the Internet, I think we have a really difficult time telling the difference between whats actually happening and whats fabricated. In other words, I think we mightve said back in the 1950s that movies and TV are reflections of what we think is real life. But I think now thats almost reversed because were sort of imitating what goes on TV, what goes on in film, what goes on in advertising and online.

We live in a time when these ideas are more important than ever before because its like were so seduced by all the media that it becomes almost impossible for us to create our own, individual narrative. In other words, theres a real temptation simple to mimic the narratives we see around us in advertising, film, TV and online. We have to be aware of that and we have to work extra hard now to try and construct an identity that is unique to us. If my narratives reflect local circumstances and situation versus general circumstances this is my house, this is my town, this is my family they will reflect a narrative unique to me that a reflection of the media, of the artificial, would not have.

Its impossible not to imitate movie stars and TV stars and advertisements at least a little, and its impossible not to be shaped in some way by a certain set of politics being broadcast at us, but if were aware of that, we have the ability not simply to conform to those general narratives but construct our own particular narrative.

If we do that, our lives are much more meaningful.

What does it mean for society if people are becoming more and more comfortable with the idea of creating a sense of self and fighting off media influence at the same time?

I think anytime we believe in a world where theres such a thing as stasis, thats dangerous because it can lead us to reinforce a certain status quo. For instance, if I watch a certain news channel with a certain set of politics that can lead to hierarchical thinking. I might start believing that some people are better than others. If I believe that, then I cling to the status quo and it shuts my world down and it doesnt allow for any growth.

How has exploring this topic impacted your life with your family?

Instead of thinking about is as this thing that controls me and impacts my life with my family, I tried to think about it as something thats just a part of me, like my eyes or something and if my eyes dont work, I wear glasses, and I get on with my life.

Because Ive been depressed, Ive been very thoughtful and contemplative, and its given me a very philosophical turn of mind. Also, going deep into depression has made me understand how important it truly is to stay connected to my daughter and my wife, how those are the things I most need to hold onto to keep from sliding into the depths of suicidal despair.

If I think about my bipolar disorder that way, I can change the narrative, and its not entirely negative.