True (?) Identities

One thing that has always fascinated me is the dichotomy we observe with writers and other creative people.  That is, the dichotomy between the author’s persona, as he or she comes across in his (I revert to the masculine pronoun henceforth for simplicity–no sexism intended) works, and the author as he actually is as a flesh-and-blood person.  Specifically:  Often the works of an writer or director or actor or other artist may move us profoundly and deeply.  They may contain wisdom and insight, compassion and breadth of spirit; reading or watching them may change our lives.  We come to see the author (or the projection of him we derive from his works) as a kindred spirit, or a teacher, or a friend, or even a brother or sister.

Then reality breaks in.  We read about the author, or see something about him in the news, or (in rare cases) meet him in person.  So many times, the person in real life is so far from what we have perceived through the mediation of the art:  nasty, vulgar, unkind, boorish, you name it.  The man who writes with insight and compassion about women may be a womanizer and misogynist in life.  The writer of children’s books may be a childless child-hater.  The sculptor of wise and compassionate prose may be a boor.  The unerring guide may be a two-bit drunk.  I think the awareness of this dichotomy is why some people (my wife included), so far from being of the fanboy mentality, actually prefer not to meet their favorite writers, performers, or artists, even in the rare cases in which this is possible!

The writer Steve Almond puts it well:  “I find all book festivals depressing, because we writers are so disappointing in person, so awkward and needy and choked with status angst.”  I have always thought this to be both fascinating and mysterious.  How is this possible?  How does a bastard, a total cad, produce books or plays or movies that stir the soul?  How does the soul in the gutter produce works that point us to the stars, so to speak?  Obviously this happens, and does so all the time, perhaps more often than not.  But why is this?

Oddly enough, an advice column cyrstallized my thinking on this.  Cary Tennis writes a regular advice column at, and I read it more or less regularly.  This particular column was written to a person whose online friend had turned out to be a massive dissapointment in real life.  What he states is obvious, but I had never thought of it that way before.  In essence, he says that we project an online persona which is a sort of better self than we actually are:  “One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that it acts as a space into which we can project an imaginary or secondary self, one more congruent with our own values, more thoughtful, more articulate, more honest.”  This rings very much true to me.  Certainly, I know several people, some personal friends, whose online persona comes off differently (in one or two cases extremely differently) from the way they are in person.

At various times in my life I have tried to keep a conventional diary.  I never follow through over the long haul.  It always has seemed to me that I never capture “myself”.  I capture part of me, but no matter how detailed I am, no matter how much thought I put into it, no matter how much I try, it always seems as if I’m producing a fragment of me, or a slant on me, or an avatar or a simulacrum.  I can never keep the mythical “audience” out of my mind, and it always affects how I write.  Thus, no matter how honest, truthful, and complete I am, I feel that the product is dishonest, untruthful, and incomplete.  I’m not doing a conventional diary here, of course, but even here I perceive that I capture only tiny fragments of my thoughts, just teeny tiny bits of “me”.

If it is so with a diary, how much more with an online persona, no matter how much you try to “be yourself”?  And if with an online persona, how much more so with fictional (or even autobiograhical) material that you write or film?  Tennis advises that the questioner not even try to resolve the contradictions between her friend’s “real” and “online” selves.  I suppose the same should be said of artists and creative types–it’s not a question of whether so-and-so is a lousy SOB or a sublime poet of the spirit.  He really is both simultaneously.  Unlike most SOB’s, though, he has somehow freed some part of his soul to transcend the crassness of his personality so that it can create great beauty.  The sublimity and the crassness are both him, the one manifested in his art, the other in his life.

Of course, to some extent we are all like this.  We are not the exact same person to our parents as we are to our children, or our spouses, or our co-workers, or our friends.  We wear many masks.  For most of us, though, since our relationships with others are not mediated through art or through the Internet, our personas are perforce not too far apart, in general.  Perhaps with art the need to keep the personas reasonably in line is no longer there, and the writer or director or actor need be less bound by his or her “true self”.  Whatever that is.

Posted on 04/10/2012, in essays and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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