Thursday, October 6, 2011

who is that in the mirror?

[note: this is an incredibly self-referential post. all the links lead you to other relevant posts, sometimes more than once. i do not apologize for this, as i believe Mr V. Nabokov would approve. --rvf]

“Here is what sometimes happened to me: after spending the first part of the night at my desk—that part when night trudges heavily uphill—i would emerge from the trance of my task at the exact moment when night had reached the summit and was teetering on that crest, ready to roll down into the haze of dawn; I would get up from my chair, feeling chilly and utterly spent, turn on the light in my bedroom, and suddenly see myself in the looking glass. Then it would go like this: during the time I had been deep at work, I had grown disacquainted with myself, a sensation akin to what one may experience when meeting a close friend after years of separation: for a few empty, lucid but numb moments you see him in an entirely different light even though you realize that the frost of this mysterious anesthesia will presently wear off, and the person you are looking at will revive, glow with warmth, resume his old place, becoming again so familiar that no effort of the will could possibly make you recapture that fleeting sensation of estrangedness. Precisely thus I now stood considering my own reflection in the glass and failing to recognize it as mine. And the more keenly I examined my face—those unblinking alien eyes, that sheen of tiny hairs along the jaw, that shade along the nose—and the more insistently I told myself “this is I, this is so-and-so,” the less clear it became why this should be “I,” the harder I found it to make the face in the mirror merge with that “I” whose identity I failed to grasp. When I spoke of my odd sensations, people justly observed that the path I had taken led to the madhouse.” --"Terror" by, Vladimir Nabokov

The feeling of not recognizing yourself in the mirror after a long night of writing makes perfect sense to me. Just as we try to make connection by seducing others in their loneliness from our own solitary states (explored here and here), we also can sometimes attempt connection by transformation from one self into another. There is the very real example of James Tiptree Jr. but there is also the everyday feeling of peopling your world with your characters. Often, in order to understand how they think, act, and speak, one can find oneself not only adding a healthy dose of one's own character, but also, or alternately, divesting oneself of every likeness to one's ordinary persona and delving as far into the mind, body and soul of the character on the page.

This, my friends, is how a writer can be more like an actor than anyone is willing to admit. I've recently realized, especially since working on a modernization/novelization of Hamlet, that I am an actor for the page, instead of the stage. But in this case I'm not only an actor that plays every role, but also the director. And the set designer and the costumer and the dramaturg, not to mention the playwright (well, the guy in charge of adaptation). Thank God there isn't really call for a stage manager, given everyone is in my own head. (An editor, however, would be nice...)

But that said, it's true that for both writers and actors there is that moment, as you are climbing up out of your scene and shaking off your character(s), where you look around and blink, trying to remember who you are when you are at home. And sometimes it comes rushing back to you and you feel like you are at home in this self when interacting with others. And sometimes it doesn't, especially if you are a writer and don't have the immediate crush of people congratulating you on a performance and reminding you of who you normally are. If you aren't paying attention, you can go the rest of your day/night/life, not ever thinking about the self you left behind in order to do your work. (and when i say you, i mean me...)

Part of me knows so strongly that I have a trans streak running thru me because I will write about a boy character in order to feel myself in his body and interacting with other characters as him. If i'm not careful I find myself being a little too 'method' with my writing and refusing to take off, say, my Hamlet nature even after i've finished writing. I'll just stay inside him as I make myself lunch, or even go to the coffee shop, just to feel what it's like to be him in the world. This is actually a great writing (and acting) exercise when it doesn't sound creepy and full of Gender Identity Disorder baggage (like it does here).

Thing is, if you live too long inside a character, you start to lose your sense of who you are when you aren't playing a role. (again, kinda like Alice Sheldon.) Or you have no self left to come back to when you have taken off a character. This might sound weird, but it's true that I've actually wished at times that I could be as devoid of identity as possible when not “playing” a role. I've thought about that trend in theatre where it was cool to have everyone dress all in black as if there was no other entity beyond the role and the words. As if the actor didn't really exist. I liked this idea only because it seemed to show that any role could be played by anybody, and the audience's job was to fill in the specificity necessary to fully realize the character by watching the way the actor played the role. I think it would be a worthy place to start from. To be seen as indistinctly as possible, and for people to only take my words and deeds as the information with which to understand me. This is definitely how I want to come at all my projects, from a place that is as neutral as possible.

But i've also wanted to come at my life that way. I've wanted that badly to not take sides in identity struggles (any and all of them). To just be seen as a person. Nothing else. Age, race, hair/eye color, gender, personality, sexuality, rationality, all of these boxes unchecked. An undressed paper doll. If I could go thru life like that—unclassified--i could feel limitless in my choices for characters to put on and “play” (on paper and in life). But alas, I have a type. In fact, I type-cast myself. And I realize the more I write, that I type-cast myself in roles closer and closer to how I want to be seen by others in real life. Not all writers do this, but it's already something that the public's imagination does to them. Hence why so many women writers, specifically ones that write male characters, no matter their identity politics, choose to use pen names or simply their initials so as not to have the reader assume that the gender of the narrator is the gender of the author. Or to at least assume the correct gender (for the narrator, if not the author) when doing so.

Cuz this is a risk one takes as an author, and an actor, that you as a person will be identified as having characteristics close to that of your characters. Again, this is why I love Nabokov so much. He wrote Humbert Humbert with full knowledge of this phenomenon. I assume this is because he knew that the kind of reader he wanted for Lolita was the kind that would end up in love with Humbert and forgive him his trespasses, thereby keeping their respect for Nabokov alive and well. [Mr. Humbert footnote here]

Tho, maybe it only works on those of us who are willing and able to be taken in. which I am. Which I almost pride myself in being—if I am anything in this (literary, theatrical, human) world, I am a generous audience. And therefore, I am somewhat gullible. This could be because I am continually on the lookout for a new identity to sink my little black-clad, nondescript self into. To swim around in and get the feel for. I've been doing this all my life and I can swear to you that at least the majority of my motivation has absolutely nothing to do with my self-esteem. It am not unhappy as myself. I am not trying to get away from my own personality. I'm simply trying to get away from any unwanted identifying markers on my self. And attempting to try on as many various, more comfortable selves as possible. So much for simply working on a gender spectrum; we are not dealing with lines, we aren't even in a 360 situation. I'm talking about being fully in the realm of at least three dimensions, wanting to be able to identify on any level as anything. An identity sphere.

This is why I watch movies. And plays. And why, you guessed it, I tend to latch on to actors (thru the characters they play) such as j. depp, r. phoenix, j. gordon-levitt, c. bale, e. wood, d. tennant and the like. The selves they take on are engrossing to me mostly because they are the closest i've found to the kinds of characters I would wish to 'play'. But also, how they take these characters on is what I pay so damned much attention to, as a connoisseur of the craft. 'What is it about that performance that made me believe so strongly in it and be so enamored with the character he just played?' I dissect these performances like I have done with Nabokov's characterization of Mr. Humbert [ibid footnote], because like i said, it's all the same skill.

[And yes, i admit the study of these actors entails the FUBU dilemma. Because, of course I find them attractive, but promise you I wouldn't if they weren't good at their job (case in point: I both hate keanu and think he is really gross. because he gives me nothing, i think he is ugly as sin). But yes, the FUBU dilemma = am I attracted to you because I want to fuck you, or because I want to be you? (or, for Sinatra fans, the 'do-be-do-be-do' problem) And, yes, a lot of times the answer is a little of column a, little of column b, but i'm noticing more and more that column b wins out.]

Cuz the thing I really want to do with these guys is to compare notes. To check my blueprints against theirs. [sound familiar?] this is how I would have gotten there, is that what you did? Teach me how to you see this working. What shape is your foundation, why those pillars, stones, arches, that decorative cornice? How is it I can become you for a time, and how long can you be on loan for? (how else does one learn to be a man, except like this?)

And this, my friends, is why I generally refrain from looking in the mirror. (and, incidentally, why I have taken to using images of my actor-mentors as fb avatars. Cuz at this point, they feel more familiar than my own face.)

1 comment:

Damian said...

"actor for the page, instead of the stage..."
"This, my friends, is how a writer can be more like an actor than anyone is willing to admit."

I feel like this every time I write. Well said!