I was on my way home from my retail job the other day wondering I was so tired. I mean, I hadn’t done much more than stand behind a counter the whole shift, so there really wasn’t any obvious reason why it would have exhausted me as much as it did, and often does. At some point I think I figured it out – the whole time I’m at that job, I’m putting on an act.
By nature, I don’t want to initiate conversations with people I don’t know, I don’t really want to have a cheery exchange and talk about very little at all for a few minutes. By nature I’m quiet and mostly comfortable talking with people I know well (yes obviously this makes it difficult to get to know people well) and I’m not inherently inclined to small talk. I have learned to put it on, but it’s an act and it takes effort. That’s what tires me out, wearing the mask. Masks are heavy, I guess.
To an extent I guess I do this at my teaching job as well, although I have come to really enjoy the interactions with students a lot of the time and so less of my teacher persona is an act than the retail persona. I have a social functions persona as well that I’m really not very good at deploying, and my ‘writer-at-a-convention’ persona is kind of a work in progress as well. It comes and goes. Of course this is nothing particular to me – I think most people have their various versions of themselves that they use in different settings and for different reasons. We all play different parts at different times. I think sometimes it protects us to be able to hide our true self from a world that might not like it or understand, and it’s maybe good to have a mask that isn’t bothered or doesn’t worry at times.
I thought about this some more watching the most recent episode of Sherlock (which in general I like very much, although I still prefer original-flavour Holmes) – without getting too spoilery for the benefit of people who might not have seen it quite yet, there’s a nice exchange where John Watson talks about the difference between what kind of person he really is, and what people believe him to be like, and how he would very much like to really be the person they think he is. In other words, Watson feels like he’s been successfully putting on an act much of the time, and wishes it wasn’t an act.
I suspect a lot of us have somewhat similar feelings – there are versions of ourselves that we’re expected to be, or think we should be, and for good or for ill we can spend a lot of energy trying to play that role. I think sometimes it really is a benefit if it makes us try to be better than we are (or think we are, which may also be relevant – the idea that we are the people who see ourselves clearly and that everyone else is wrong is frequently not right, I think) , but can just as easily be a form of self sabotage if we use it as a way to beat ourselves up for not being what we’re ‘supposed’ to be, which is what the John Watson character had been doing. Masks can help. Masks can hurt.
This in turn reminds me of advice given on a radio call-in show that I used to listen to late at night when I was in university. One of the hosts would often advise people to ‘pretend to be a decent person’. Like, if you know what the decent, acceptable thing to do in a given situation is, then just do that, even if it isn’t your natural impulse to do so. And what would really be the difference between a person who went through life ‘pretending’ to be decent in such a way and someone for whom the ‘decent’ thing was a natural impulse? How could you tell? Who would know?
To haul this blog somewhat back in the direction of writing, you can tell in a story because the author can show you all the other thoughts bubbling away under the mask and behind the pretense. I think that’s one of the things we get to do as authors: we can make it very clear to the audience where the ‘real’ character ends and their act begins – if we choose to. We can expose a character’s innermost thoughts and motivations and lay them out in the light of day, when ordinarily we are all only guessing at what may be happening inside the people we interact with every day.
Obviously it can also be fun to leave the ‘true’ nature of a character a bit of an unsolved question for the reader to puzzle over, just as I guess we sometimes do in real life. I think both scenarios can work well – it can be a lot of fun to see the difference between how a character is presenting themselves and their internal dialogue and thoughts, something we really ordinarily only get to do with ourselves. It can also be fun to be fooled by the mask, let characters hide their true selves from us (or at least, mostly hide them) – you can get some really amazing moments where the act suddenly stops and the real nature of a character comes blazing through.
I know I sometimes worry when I’m writing about whether or not these kinds of situations are terribly contrived and unrealistic, and the kind of things that authors make up for purely dramatic purposes in fiction. Like most things, of course they can be done poorly, but I guess I need to remember my own daily masks as evidence that these things happen every day, and very likely with most of the people around us. I imagine most people, if they were honest, would say that at least part of the persona they show to the world is at least a little bit of an act, a lot of the time, so it’s fine if we exaggerate that for effect with our imaginary people.
That’s what I’ve got for you this week – I still haven’t been quite 100% and have been busy with the start of a new term, so hopefully I’ll have something a bit more focused for you next time.