Chameleon or True Blue?

by Alexandra Sokoloff

I find myself now, for various reasons, in a sort of therapy (is that vague enough? Because I can easily be more vague…) which requires that I regularly talk about my thoughts and feelings, and things like How I Am.

Some of you who have met me in person have noticed and called me on the fact that I rarely talk much about myself – I’m very good at turning the conversation to YOU so that I don’t have to disclose anything. (Or maybe more because I have no idea How I Am. Remember, I started blogging about story structure primarily so I wouldn’t have to talk about myself anymore… and anyway if I’m at a conference the answer is always the same – I’m deliriously happy. Who wouldn’t be?)

To a certain extent all writers are good at this, turning the conversation onto someone else, because hey, it’s character research. Maybe in fact all good writers are good at it, and only the annoying ones that you would never read anyway talk about themselves all the time (and I know you all know who I mean).

But in this therapy I am very good at talking about myself. I disclose all kinds of things. I even cry. Because I am nothing if not a good student, expert at discerning what a teacher (or director or choreographer) wants from me.

When I was doing improv I had directors who called personal disclosures like the ones I am now engaged in “California Scenes”. It wasn’t a compliment. A California scene is when you just dump every sordid detail of your character’s life onto your scene partner – and never actually tell the real truth.

The thing is, what truth? What real?

What I mean is, how do I know what’s me when I just spent four hours in what was basically a dissociative state as a sixteen-year old girl tracking a potential mass murderer through the back tunnels of a shopping mall? I can tell you her feelings, but those aren’t really my feelings. Except that for the last four hours, they were.

When you spend most of your waking day being someone else, and most of the rest of it dreaming, who are you really?

This is I think why, for so long, actors were shunned by society and not allowed to be buried in hallowed ground. (That I suppose and all that unhallowed sex). Because they’re not really real. You never know who they are. But then what about us writers who play EVERY part, constantly, plus sometimes an omniscient narrator on top of that? How much less real does that make us?

When I and my siblings were in high school, my brother once brought home a Cosmo magazine with one of those great Cosmo quizzes (you know you all love them): Are you a Chameleon or a True Blue? And said to my sister and me: “Right there is the problem. I’m a True Blue and you two are Chameleons.” And okay, yeah, we didn’t even have to take the quiz to know that he was right. But we did take the quiz, and he was right.

Day to day I’m actually quite fine with my Chameleon nature, because it IS who I am. But I’m less comfortable with it in therapy; it makes me feel like I’m lying. Maybe because in the group I seem to be surrounded by True Blues. But maybe those people have a very strong sense of who I am, and I’m the one who doesn’t.

Now, we all write ourselves as characters, to a certain extent or another. I certainly am not as much any character I’ve written as Cornelia is Madeleine Dare, not even in the same universe, but I can point to certain characters in certain books and say definitively that they’re more me than others. I’ve noticed our readers play that game, too (just the other day someone here commented that she sees Tess when she reads Maura Isles, and really, who doesn’t?). Only at least with me, they’re mostly wrong. People think I’m Laurel MacDonald because there are places in THE UNSEEN where she says things in my voice, and I used a lot of my California-to-North Carolina experience in the book. But she’s a lot prettier than I am and also worlds less sure of herself… she’s softer, so much so that I don’t much relate to her. I’ve also had people say to me, “Do you know someone like Robin (in THE HARROWING)? Because she seems so real but you’re not at all like her.” But actually I am very much like her, but that’s just one half of me, and the other half, that masks her, is another character in the book.

I am very grateful for the conference circuit, which for me provides a very grounding, real-life balance to the all that writing and dissociation I do. I can find myself again in large groups of people (well, especially if there’s dancing), and when I am forced to talk about myself (on panels, etc.), I remember who I am, apart from the random dreamlike state that writing is.

But I guess this is what is puzzling me. Are ALL writers Chameleons, or are some of us True Blues who easily snap back into our “real” selves once we turn off the computer for the day? Are some people with “real” jobs as much Chameleons as actors or writers, playing a completely different part or parts during the day, at work, which parts are as much a dissociative state as writing?

What do you think? Are you a Chameleon or a True Blue?

And for bonus points, writers: which characters that you’ve written are most like you? Readers, which characters do YOU think are most like the authors who write them? And most importantly, why do you think actors were not allowed to be buried in hallowed ground?

– Alex

—————————————————————————————

Alex will be in New Orleans this Labor Day weekend for Heather Graham’s unmissable Writers for New Orleans Conference, teaching Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, paneling, and (thank God) being herself by playing a pirate wench and riverboat prostitute with Heather’s Slush Pile Players. Pitch sessions available with editors and publishers Leslie Wainger, Adam Wilson, Eric Raab, Ali deGray, Kate Duffy and Helen Rosburg.

19 thoughts on “Chameleon or True Blue?

  1. Cornelia Read

    I’m a true blue chameleon, by which I mean I try to be a good loyal friend but at the same time I will pretty much assume the shape of any vessel into which I am poured.

    My problem with therapy is that I’m always trying to make the shrink laugh, which is not necessarily therapeutic. Or maybe it is for the shrink..

    I love "California scenes." My life is a California scene, bay-bay.

    Reply
  2. Karen in Ohio

    Thought-provoking topic, Alex.

    Do you sometimes feel, in the midst of a session, that you’re just telling yet another story?

    Reply
  3. JT Ellison

    I’m a True Blue, and that’s because I have a pseudonym. I can separate out the writer part from the real part, and don’t often get the two mixed up. It’s handy. But to be honest, I’m the writer part MORE than the me part.

    I hope you have a great therapy experience. With the right person in charge, it can be wonderful. But be careful in group settings, where your inclination will be to help the others, and put your own problems on hold to solve theirs…

    xo

    Reply
  4. R.J. Mangahas

    "Some of you who have met me in person have noticed and called me on the fact that I rarely talk much about myself โ€“ Iโ€™m very good at turning the conversation to YOU so that I donโ€™t have to disclose anything."

    I agree with that. But you know what’s funny, when we were talking and you did that, you actually helped me remember some stuff in vivid detail that I could only vaguely recall before. I need to thank you for that.

    You made me think on a Saturday. Honestly, I try to be true blue but the chameleon in me can take over. I guess it’s the double whammy of being both writer and actor.

    I think there’s a little bit of me in any character I write, even if it’s just one small thing. The only character that pretty much IS me Nick Ramos, the young man who had just lost his wife (you know the story behind it I believe)

    Reply
  5. Louise Ure

    Chameleon. Definitely.

    I remember a conversation from decades ago, when a friend accused me of not sharing anything about myself. "Who are you?" she said. "I’m a reflection of the last person I talked to."

    Reply
  6. karen from mentor

    Wow Alex.
    As Cornelia said I was used to pouring myself into the expected vessel and playing that part.
    Never talking about myself. And pushing down what I wanted and needed to make sure that others were tended.
    I played that expected part for most of my life and am just now this late in the game discovering myself. My true self.
    And I find that I like her.
    Which is surprising. Cause she’s not what I expected.
    And it was also surprising how quickly she’s gained confidence as young as she is and as long as she’s been without a voice.

    I think what helped us come together, the old public me and the NEW public me was writing my first book.
    And the WEIRDEST thing is that the people that I populated my first novel with are showing up in my life. Loving comforting people unlike any I’ve ever had before.
    Being me is new.
    I can write me. I’m still having trouble living me with some of the folks who knew the old me. But that gets easier every day.
    I had regular therapy to work through some old crap.
    Then I think writing became therapy for me.
    I think that the things that I write are as real as the things that I live.
    Only now the things that I live are true too.
    In a very new way.
    I loved the post. Keep talking about yourself and finding a way to be comfortable in sharing what you want/need to with others.

    Wow deep stuff for a Saturday morning.
    Where should I mail the check Dr. Alex?

    Hugs!
    Karen :0)

    Reply
  7. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Wow. Intense post. Louise – I love that line – "I’m a reflection of the last person I talked to." You could write an entire novel with that as the first line.
    Alex – your honesty and willingness to be vulnerable is refreshing and admirable. I’m a chameleon struggling to be a True Blue. My day job complicates everything, because I can’t be myself, which is, at my core, a writer. I feel I have to leave it soon, to protect my sanity. But that will start a whole series of other problems.
    I think we’re all exploring ourselves. I don’t know if any of us knows who we are. I hate being the chameleon in my day job, but I think chameleon as a writer is a comfortable place to be. I love getting so lost in my work that I don’t know who I am. I could do that for days, if it weren’t for the day job. But I also need to keep some semblance of sanity in order to be present for my wife and kids. It’s a balancing act.

    Reply
  8. Jan

    I think I’m a Blue Chameleon. Yes. No….uh, I’m a True Chameleon. Really I don’t know. Here’s something to ponder though – if I was a true chameleon might I not say I was True Blue? I think I might. When I’m writing I try on the different parts – I have to – even the villains so they don’t have one boring flavour of badness about them. I don’t feel like my main protagonist too much – more in feeling than in style perhaps. To add more confusion to the mix – I’m a psychotherapist. Yikes. Sometimes people tell me stories that I’m dying to use but I don’t. As a therapist I’m a True Blue for sure.
    In Buddhist teachings I think you come closest to understanding when you say "When you spend most of your waking day being someone else, and most of the rest of it dreaming, who are you really?" No one. The true blue isn’t truer than the slippery chameleon.
    And to answer your question Alex – I am most like a character in a play that I wrote with a friend. She was a war artist named Kate and the play is called Fields of Crimson – the art of war.
    The interior of me is most like my characters when they are outraged, the exterior when they are quirky, odd and vulnerable.
    Such a thought provoking post! Thank you.

    Reply
  9. Dana King

    I’d like to say True Blue because I don’t vary opinion just to suit present company. But I do change my manners and manner of speaking, depending on who’s where, so I’m a Chameleon. But I don;t really change what I say, just how I say it, or what I leave out, so I’m True Blue. But a chameleon is still a chameleon; no matter what his current color, he’s still the same animal, so I’m a chameleon. The fact that I can’t make up my mind argues strongly in favor of Chameleon.

    So I guess I am. A Chameleon, that is. Until I think of another argument, Which I probably will. At about 3:00 AM. Dammit.

    Thanks a lot.

    Reply
  10. Allison Brennan

    Damn, why do you always have to make me think? Grr.

    Okay, I’m a true blue. I can’t lie. I find it very difficult to hide my emotions HOWEVER I have gotten much better at it over the years. But I still can’t verbally lie. My mother used to tell me she always knew when I was lying (even when I was a teenager and thought I’d perfected it) and I didn’t understand how, until my oldest daughter who is most like me and now I know EXACTLY what my mom means. She can’t lie, either, and it’s kinda funny.

    I generally tell people what they want to know when they ask. I’m pretty much a what you see is what you get kind of person. Happy? I smile. Sad? I frown. The only caveat in that is that I’ve gotten better at keeping a blank face and not being as open, but that’s more a product of my experience.

    I can’t really say that any of my characters are like me. I wish I were as brave, athletic, and focused as they are. They all have little parts of me, I suppose. The one who may be most like me is Carina Kincaid. Moira O’Donnell in my upcoming series has a bit more of me than most characters, too. I also kind of relate to Patrick Kincaid in terms of him being in a supporting role for his family of over-achievers. Moira is my first true series character, and it’ll be interesting to see if she becomes more like me or less. And then there’s Lucy, who’s isn’t much like me at all, but she’ll be a series character, too.

    Too much thinking. Back to revisions!

    Reply
  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Jan, thank YOU – what a thought-provoking answer!

    Outrage is a lot of my inner life, too, and consequently my characcters’. And I was thinking of Buddhism and yoga when I wrote that sentence, in fact…

    Reply
  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Sorry, Dana.

    And Allison, I am your mental workout. Hah!

    I would have said about you that you’re a true blue in person but a real chameleon when it comes to your characters. And that’s pretty much what you just confirmed n your post!

    Reply
  13. Gayle Carline

    Can I be a Chameleon with a True Blue heart? I’d like to be just Gayle, the Real One, if I knew who she was. Too bad my early childhood taught me to roll with the flow, change with the weather, and be who I think the room needs at the moment. Of course, now that I’m older, the Real Gayle is stepping forth – turns out she’s kinda cranky.

    Why didn’t they want actors buried in hallow ground? Dunno – cuz the theater isn’t reverent enough?

    Gayle
    http://gaylecarline.blogspot.com

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *