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 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.