Taking Off The Mask

There is a part of me that I don’t think anyone will ever like. I don’t only think it, actually. I know it. Because I’ve played that part in public before. I’ve acted it out, cloaked myself in it, and let people know that was who I was. No one liked it. Or almost no one. Most likely it was because of who I am and who I’m not. That part of me that I used to play was someone I’m not particularly fond of now, especially after I’ve spent years covering him up, seeing how people react to him and how he could have thought about things differently. When I was a teenager, I listened to all the depressing music that people association with not unintelligent, independent, non-conformist teenagers. The works. I said and read and posted and lived really depressing mantras. And you know what? No one really much liked me when I did that.  I’ve heard it said that moody introspection only works if you’re considerably taller and are able to play the guitar. And that pretty much hit the nail on the head for how well people responded to the person I was purporting myself to be. It was somewhat an act, because there were other facets to my personality, too. But the glaring thing was that part of me. So I changed it. Not quickly and not easily, but I realized that people liked being around me when I would laugh and joke and keep away from really depressing statements. I made that who I was. And for the most part, I’m still that person. But the mask I wear to appear appealing to others has that part removed from it.

Here’s the part where I actually talk about writing and not just myself. Ask any writer how it feels to have someone read their work. Go ahead, ask them. You will probably get an answer somewhere along the lines of a feeling of mingled shame and hope and somewhere around there, embarrassment–with maybe a dash of pride mixed in. More emotions than that are combined in that experience, but to go any farther into that rabbit hole would risk a loss of focus on my part. It is hard to ask anyone to read one’s work and even harder to actually get anyone to read one’s work. For after you’ve gotten the person to say the word “Yes” they still have to sit down and actually read the damn thing.

But now after beating around the bush for a while, I come to the point I want to make. Have you ever had someone read your writing in front of you? Like while you’re standing/sitting still while they actually read the words you put down in a private place somewhere, unsure anyone in the world would ever actually see it? It is nothing short of horrifying. The simple act of watching someone run their eyes over something from inside you is almost painful it’s so embarrassing. That’s an interesting word, by the way, isn’t it? “Embarrassing.” Em-bare-ass-ing. That’s like saying something goes through the process of making you bareassed. But why is this so embarrassing? Why does it make us feel like we’re back in that dream where we show up to school naked? I have a theory and it relates to that part of me that I know no one will ever like. That part I’ve tried so hard to hide, that part of me that is expressed and given a voice in my dreams where I show up to school naked. And it relates to that part of me that I put down on paper when I write.

My writing, my stuff, my work, whatever I happen to be calling it at the moment is a direct result of putting that part of myself that no one likes on paper. It’s the time where I’m able to take off that mask that I’ve been putting on for necessity of survival and to avoid looking like a huge fucking tool. From my other essay about writing as looking inward to reach out, it’s a bit obvious and hopefully you maybe read that one before reading this one. If not, that’s fine; if so, wonderful. And but so when putting down on paper that part of yourself that has not been given any air, any light, any say for so long except maybe from time to time in the music you listen to, in the books you read, the films you watch, you are giving voice to something that has long been ignored and left on its own–more importantly, you recognize how important and integral this part of you is, even if no one ever seems to respond to it in person. But these ways to get it out are passive, not the same as bringing that part out actively. That is where writing comes in for me. Writing is an act of taking off the mask. You finally free yourself from that wall that you put up between yourself and the world around you. The cruel irony is that often the part of yourself you put down in your work that no one responds to in real life is the very part that people respond to the most in your work. How does this happen, where when you bare your soul in person someone feels like you’re being indecent, but then when you are completely maskless in your work you are praised? Does honesty hold no weight in person? Because it definitely does in art. Art is your moment for honesty. And so isn’t it a little nerve-wracking when someone witnesses that part of yourself that you had vowed to relegate to the dungeons of your soul? At least when in the presence of others, lest you completely turn them off with your honesty and self-obsession? It is as if you went around your whole life with a mask on your face and then one day took a picture of yourself without the mask on, and then you proceeded to show that picture to someone while standing in front of them wearing your mask. Can you imagine what kind of horrors and embarassments and wild possibilities would run through you at that point? It’s probably one of the most conflicting and uncomfortable positions I’ve ever been in, to be honest.   And isn’t that both a little sad and a little admirable that people have this kind of conflict about showing that part of themselves? It’s a little sad in that we are told never to give a shit what people think about us and to do what we want because we want to and so it’s an acknowledgement of the outside world’s effect on us. But it’s also admirable in the sense that we know this part of ourselves has never been well-liked and we may even be ridiculed for it–but at least we are facing that fear in order to say something about ourselves and about everything and anything on this big spinning ball of rock. For all I know lawyers might relate everything in the world to law and doctors to medicine–what I know about is writing and so the filter that all information goes through first is the filter of writing. And it’s this filter that has allowed me to take off the mask that I oblige myself to wear every day. And for that, I’m eternally grateful.

Thanks for reading. I hope you liked it!

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A Rumination on the Longevity of Story vs. The Life of the Ego

All right, so instead of finishing writing the story I need to write this month, I’m thinking and spending way too much fucking time inside my head. Solipsism and lack of contact/interaction with my favorite people in the world (aside from my better half) has been the cause, I’m quite certain. So now I’m going to write a blog-post about something that has been whizzing all around the chambers of my head since I sat down on the toilet at work earlier tonight (I know, a little less glamorous place than a bathtub for a “eureka” moment, but it’ll do).

Earlier tonight, I felt the old call of nature and had to take a bathroom break. I elected to take the stall, as it was a way to cheat the clock and spend a few minutes off my feet. Once on the throne, I looked to my right and saw a graffitied conversation/message board commensurate with the sophistication of an elementary philosophy class. The first message that started it off was something like this: “This message is here to say something. But it will be erased and will vanish forever. Nothing is permanent. Remember that.” Sensible enough, if not an obvious statement to make. It’s nice to be reminded of these things every now and then. However, the next message went something like, “Yeah, but now even if it gets erased, it has entered our minds and lives on forever.” Insert snide comment here. The next comment was the one that got me thinking: “No, it doesn’t. You die, idiot.”

That was the end of the conversation as I found it. And how interesting that the first thought that rose to my head happened to be, “That’s why storytelling is so important!” I sat there for a while, wondering if I should pull the pen out of my pocket (not a euphemism) and write my retort right there under the “my dad is bigger than your dad” comment.I will save face by not answering the obvious implied question and instead forge on to elaborate on my first knee jerk thought.

What the last poster said was true. We die. Things break down. The center cannot hold. Turning and turning in the widening gyre and all that noise. So how do we ensure that something lasts forever? How do we extend the longevity of us? The answer to the question may seem obvious, given what has been said before. And it is. But that’s not the important part. Lots of people, when asked why they write, say “Because this way I can live forever.” The folly in this statement is the main importance, the integral piece to this post.

In the interest of full disclosure, when I first started out writing, this was my reason for writing. I knew that books were published and many of those people who wrote those books have been talked about year after year and were never forgotten. I admired and worshiped (and still do) those writers. In our culture and in our profession of writing, the writer has become elevated to a level above what is most important. The thing that is most important is the story and the craft. And it is in this answer to the question of why we write that we see the vanity of the writer being repeated constantly. Which is not to say that the writer is the only one who has these moments. Lots of parents have this same answer (whether they admit it or not) to the question of why they became parents. The problem is when we dedicate ourselves to this craft, this noble pursuit in the attempt to live forever, essentially admitting to our using this great gift of storytelling as a means to an end. Telling the story should be the end, not its means. Why is this? Because we don’t live forever. No one lives forever. But the story does.

Let’s face it. We don’t tell stories to make ourselves live forever. C.S. Lewis said that we write not to be understood, but to understand. This is a good place to start. We wish to generate compassion in ourselves through the means of creating, exploring, inquiring, and finally creating. However, at the same time, F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Writers don’t write because they want to say something. They write because they have something to say.” Here Fitzgerald is alluding to the idea that instead of trying to generate compassion in ourselves, we are trying to generate compassion in others. Projecting rather than internalizing.  I think right here is the crux, the dichotomy in the view of craft. These aren’t quite two different sides to the same coin, but they do somewhat create the yin-yang of the storytelling world. We write to create and to communicate. We tell stories for this same reason. The oral tradition and the written tradition were both used to communicate and and entertain. And to this end, our stories convey the values that are held by us and that we hope to pass down. These themes and ideas are all intertwined in the process of storytelling. And finally, I’ll get to my point.

I think an important thing to strive for in your own writing is the ego-death of the author. You may have heard this term before and you may not have. Normally, it’s used to describe the feeling that comes over you during an LSD experience where you achieve objectivity. You cease to be yourself. You see yourself from a god’s eye view and selfishness becomes a foreign term. I’m candy-coating it slightly. According to those people I know who have experienced it, it’s actually quite fucking terrifying. It was fucking terrifying to me when I heard about it. But the point still stands that we as authors (and the best ones have) need to take ourselves out of the equation when creating our characters, settings, et cetera. Or at least the part of ourselves where the ego resides; where I wonder, agonize, and fret over just how I’m going to come off to those who will read this piece of my soul I’m putting down right now. And I know this sounds high and mighty, and holier than thou and all that shit. Because believe me, it sounds like that to me, too. And some who read this won’t like the suggestion that I’ve put forth. I know I’ve heard this suggestion in quite a different places lately, and I didn’t like it any of the times I heard it. In fact, it scared me quite a bit. And why wouldn’t it? The ego doesn’t like to hear that it should be put to sleep every once in a while, especially when the piece of my soul is being put down in a format where other egos will superimpose themselves in judgment over this piece of my heart. As Faulkner once said, “What matters is not the writer. What matters is the story. If I hadn’t been born, I would have been written anyway.” Though I’m not sure I agree with this assessment, it’s true that we don’t know who wrote Beowfulf or The Epic of Gilgamesh or who exactly wrote those amazing pieces of The Bible and maybe that’s what we need. These scribes didn’t think it necessary to add their own stamps to these pieces of art. The story was enough and would live on far longer than they themselves. Now, I’m not suggesting we go so far as to take our names off our own works. But I am suggesting that we remember that we serve our characters and we serve our stories. Not the other way around.