Who are you, and what do you want out of life? You don’t have to be a poet to experience the empowering effects of writing an ‘I am’ poem.
I am not a poet, but I recently glimpsed the cadenced magic while attending a retreat based on Brené Brown’s Rising Strong. There’s a reason several of Brené’s TED Talks have gone viral. Her research on using vulnerability to overcome shame is life-altering. The four-day retreat I attended focused on owning and rumbling with our stories to create brave, new endings. One of the most powerful exercises involved writing an “I am” poem.
What is an “I am” poem? I like to think of it as an idyllic snapshot of your life: factual bio meets dramatic manifesto.
Few of us take the time to ask ourselves who we are. An “I am” poem empowers us to paint the picture of ourselves that feels the most authentic and inspiring. It allows us to synthesize our past, present and future selves on paper.
It’s an invitation to ask ourselves: How do I show up in the world? How do I want to show up in the world? What do I want to give and receive out of life?
While the “I am” poem itself has been a writing exercise in educational circles for years, the unique way Brené Brown incorporates it in her curriculum lends to her themes of rising strong and wholehearted living.
The “I am” poem is an epiphany-inducing activity. Here’s how you can write your own.
Note: these tips aren’t meant to teach proper poetic forms or structures but specifically to take you through the exercise of writing an “I am” poem.
5 Simple Steps to Writing Your Own ‘I Am’ Poem
1. Jot down descriptions of yourself and your roots.
This could be your parents’ names, hometown, ethnic heritage, etc. Free-write whatever comes to mind, even though you might not choose to include it all in your poem. You can add in physical traits, aspects of your personality, hopes, dreams and even sorrows. This is where you really get to play with human traits, with all their contradictions and complexities. In my poem below, for example, it felt right to include a lot of contrasting traits because I can see how complex and paradoxical I am as a human. It can be powerful and freeing when we’re able to acknowledge both the light and the dark.
2. Decide what kind of structure you like.
There are many common poem structures to choose from. Most people opt for free verse for “I am” poems, but if you’re in the mood to rhyme, feel free! You can even organize your poem chronologically, as my friend Nicole did in her sample below.
3. Begin a rough draft in your chosen structure.
You can choose to begin every line or every stanza with “I am.” Some lines may spark new details you can add as you write. Edit and rewrite at your leisure, taking out any parts that don’t resonate with you.
4. Edit, but have fun with it!
Treat this as your playground! If you love being silly, show it in your words and tone. If you’re more sentimental, lean into your emotions as you craft your work.
5. Share it with those closest to you…or don’t.
This is your poem, a gift to yourself that, if you want to, you can share with someone close to you.
Below are two examples that show different styles, one by Nicole Shultz-Kass and one by me. The retreat that Nicole and I attended was specifically for women dealing with vision loss, so you’ll see that topic come up in both samples. Seasoned poets may scoff, detecting our inexperience, but the beauty of an “I am” poem is that you will grow from it. If you can pardon a cliché: all’s well that ends well! It’s your poem. Amateurs invited!
‘I am’ by Nicole Schultz-Kass
I am a little girl, blonde hair, blue eyes. I am a kid, a student, a daughter, and a sister.
I am blind but they want me to be sighted.
I am scared. All the time I am scared. I am scared to cross the street. I am scared I’ll say the wrong name when I approach someone. I am scared when I travel somewhere without someone I trust to help me. I am scared to be myself, to say the wrong thing, to do something the wrong way. I am scared to be myself — whoever that is.
I am a young woman, blonde hair, blue eyes. I am walking through adolescence and young adulthood. I am no longer a child but I am not yet an adult either.
I am learning. I am learning how to be blind in a sighted world. I am learning to use a white cane and a guide dog. I am learning to cross the street with confidence. I am learning to ask people to tell me who they are until I’ve gotten to know their voices. I am learning to ask their names multiple times even though I feel embarrassed. I am learning to travel, alone, and with people I trust. I am learning to trust myself, to be myself. I am learning who I am.
I am finding myself.
I am a woman, blonde hair, blue eyes. I am a wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend. I am blind in a sighted world. I am not afraid. I am strong. I am confident. I have traveled the country alone. I have navigated traveling safely alone, and carrying my children. I ask people to tell me who they are when they approach me or wave at me. I share my blindness with others. I share my life with others. I am an advocate. I am a teacher.
I am an ongoing process. I am a work in progress. I am growing. I am perfectly imperfect. I am happy. I am strong. I am brave. I am an adventurer and a life-seeker. I am on a journey.
I am moving forward and looking back. I am ready.
I am Me, blonde hair, blue eyes, blind, perfectly and beautifully made.
‘I am’ by Joy Thomas
I am Joy of Tom and Judy, 2nd of twins, born by surprise.
I often see more with my soul than I do with my eyes.
I am Joy of Naperville, IL; 7th generation, farm roots and all.
I skip by the DuPage River on brick pathways, near the VFW hall.
I crunch leaves underfoot and inhale brisk autumn air;
I love picking apples, carving pumpkins and want life to be fair.
I am sister to Nelly, Neener and Jilly.
With them, I am playful, bratty and silly.
“Rowdy J girls,” head of curls, the lot of us.
Together we laugh; together we make a fuss.
I am soulmate to Ben, my comrade, my peace feeder;
My songwriter, playmate and my biggest cheerleader.
In our home we make music, flag false stories and light fire.
We strive to be loving; we work hard not to tire.
I am mom to Lucy and Elliana, whose names both mean light.
They hug me in the mornings and squeeze me each night.
They play games. They create things. They sing and they wiggle.
They beg me to tell stories of my past to make them giggle.
I am handler to Roja, soulful eyes and furry chest.
No experience with animals, I am trying my best.
She lays her head on my lap, sweet face, snoring loud.
Guides me through trails and makes me feel proud.
I am Joy, a creator of beauty, of shame, of joy, of pain.
With gratitude, I offer thanks for the rainbow, thanks for the rain.
With a sensitive heart and a curious mind, I long to connect.
I seek mystery and knowing. I seek to define. I seek to protect.
I am Joy, a teacher, a sister, a friend, a mentor, a maker.
I’ve listened and been present; I’ve judged and been a faker.
I’ve crafted things that sparkle, but others not so swell.
I’ve discovered my heaven and made my own hell.
I am Joy, a writer, a thinker, a seeker.
A tempest, a lover, a keeper.
I have written words that hurt, written words that heal.
I have written words that give, written words that steal.
I am Joy of the sunshine setting above the sea;
Waves pull me under, waves set me free.
I surf on swells of sorrow, ride ripples of song;
I want to dive in; I long to belong.
I am Joy of the evening sky, patient and kind.
I cannot see the stars but I paint them in my mind.
I hold hands with my family, dig toes deep in the sand;
I breathe in salty air, though it’s not my homeland.
What will you discover about yourself in your own “I am” poem?