Sunday, June 14, 2009

Writing and the Mask

Here is an essay that I revised a bit from my introduction to an anthology a few years ago. It gives a taste of my thoughts about the art of writing fiction....

Writing and the Mask

I am wearing a mask. Right now, as I write this. It is not a physical thing covering my face; rather, it is in the "I" that begins this paragraph. Again, now: I write "I" followed by a verb, and you the reader perceive me, a writer, telling you his own "truth." But no matter what I write, "I" is a lie. And no matter what I write, "I" is also the truth.

This conundrum is explored in an anthology, The Other Face: Experiencing the Mask, that I co-edited along with professional maskmaker Wendy Drolma (Klein). The book explores the meaning of the mask through poetry, art, "fiction" and "non-fiction" (I put those words in quotes because, in the end, their definitions are entirely elusive). What you are reading here is a revised version of the book's introduction.

If I were writing here in a mode called "fiction," you would gladly accept the mask and maybe even think, "how creative." In the anthology, when Robert Louis Stevenson wears the face of his invention Dr. Jekyll and says, "I was born in the year 18-- to a large fortune...," we enter into a kind of theater and suspend our disbelief. Our pleasure is in believing the obvious lie. When Barry Yourgrau starts the final story, "I come into the kitchen...," we're not so sure that this is an invented persona speaking, but we go along happily as his darkish whimsy unfolds. Mark Sherman's "I" may make us squirm a bit because, while his story has the trappings of fiction, the narrator, we think, just might be Mr. Sherman himself, pretending otherwise. The mask grows thinner.

But there are "non-fiction" works in the volume as well. For instance, this introduction. Since it is not fiction, it must be true, right? The mask of "I" is not acknowledged; it is a sly disguise that looks similar enough to my real face (is there such a thing?) that you don't suspect I wear a mask at all. In the anthology, Michael Perkins, Sparrow, and Gabriel Q all write an "I" that also makes no suggestion of a mask. Does that mean their works are "true"?

Samuel Avital, Sophie Rogers-Gessert, Vincent Lloyd, and George Ulrich don't need an "I" at all; in their essays, they wear the masks of authority, of objectivity, of educated reason. But simply to set pen to paper, one must adopt the persona of "writer." Carl Jung said, "The persona is a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual."

I write fiction. I believe in the power of imagination, and I have often "hired" someone not myself -- a persona -- to narrate my stories. When Oscar Wilde said, "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth," he was right: behind that mask, my conscious agendas, my censors, my carefully constructed "self," all disappear, and without "me" in control, I tell the truth. The real truth. It slips in through the unguarded back door. It can't be otherwise, because I am I.

Except, of course, for the Buddhist truth that "I" is just an illusion anyway. As Alan Watts said, "I" is just the Universe "eyeing." Each of us is both the center and not the center: double in nature. Dr. Jekyll can't face himself as he writes about Hyde: "He, I say -- I cannot say, I." He denies his own double nature even as he admits it. In a similar self-deconstruction, H.G. Wells' Invisible Man turns his unhappy being into apparent nothingness and then, hiding in a costumier's shop, must put on a mask and false whiskers to make himself again perceptible in the world. The masked man always dons another mask, and so it goes.

Pablo Picasso said: "Art is a lie that tells the truth." The anthology The Other Face, our little work of art, is full of masks, but it is also full of truth. I hope readers approach it with an open heart, and receive wisdom. And as for whether these warm wishes come from "me" or from some persona in my employ, I feel as Jorge Luis Borges does, when he closes the story "Borges and I"...
"I do not know which of us has written this page."


The Other Face: Experiencing the Mask, published by Bliss Plot Press, is available from Wendy Drolma Masks.