There’s a lot of talk about authenticity these days.
“Be real,” they tell us. Show your true self. Be honest in your writing. Take away the masks.
I’m all for being authentic. In fact, I have a hard time being any other way. When I was a teenager, it often griped me how easily my parents could read the emotions on my face—particularly when my expression showed irritation or disdain for their advice, which would quickly result in negative consequences. I vowed at one point to take on the persona of Mr. Spock from Star Trek, so I could better hide what I was feeling, but that never worked out too well.
It’s great to be real. We tend to grow more that way, learn more, and particularly in our writing, accomplish more. But let’s face it—there are times when writers and other creatives simply must wear a mask.
By that I mean that we have to learn how to slip into another skin when we need to. Acting “as if” is a powerful way to motivate ourselves to take the actions we need to take for our projects, our careers, and our sanity along the way. It’s also a good way for us to protect ourselves when we need to—which can be often. (Think critiques, rejections, naysayers.)
In the spirit of Halloween, here are seven masks a writer must have to become the best he or she can be.
You’ve just hit your deadline, and sent that edited manuscript or new novel off to your publisher/agent. You’re exhausted. You’re brain dead. You’ve been doing little but eating, breathing, and sleeping your novel for the past however many weeks. The house is a disaster. You haven’t had (or fixed) a real meal since you can’t remember. Laundry? You think there may be a few clean clothes left somewhere.
But hey, the novel is done, right? Time to get back into life! Family and friends pat you on the back and then expect you to jump headlong back into all your usual activities.
This is when you need to haul out the walking dead mask. You can’t explain it, how you feel. How your innards are drained, your brain mush. Don this mask and you can be sure people will leave you alone, giving you the time you need to recover!
Yes, this one can come in handy, even as an adult.
Say you’re going to a writing workshop, where others will comment on your work. Or you’re hiring an editor to look at the manuscript you’ve labored over for months (or longer). Or you’re going out with your friend for lunch and she’s going to tell you what she thought of your novel.
Let’s face it. Anything but praise in these situations (and others like them) is going to hurt, but if you go showing that emotion while you’re getting the feedback, at best you’ll come off like an amateur, and at worse, you’ll feel embarrassed about it later.
Put on your Mr. Spock mask, and limit your comments to “interesting” and “fascinating.” Nod, raise an eyebrow, and otherwise remain stoically attentive. You’ll get through the experience without any additional mishaps, and then, when it’s all over and you’re safely away from your critics, you can remove the mask and react to your heart’s content.
These are for all those times when you need to “smile and wave, boys, smile and wave.”
You know the times. When you tell someone you’re a writer, and they respond with how they’ve always wanted to write a book too, but just haven’t had the time. Or a dear friend goes on about how she just “didn’t get” your book. Or your agent calls and says sorry, he just couldn’t place your manuscript, and is releasing you from the contract. Or your significant other says he or she just hasn’t had time to read your new book, but he or she is sure it’s great.
You’re at a family reunion, and everyone’s going on about nephew Patty’s recipe that appeared on a cooking blog, and no one seems to notice that you just published novel number five to rave reviews. Or you’re at a conference, and after introducing yourself to another attendee, you’re forced to listen for fifteen minutes to how many books he’s published and how great they are and how he knows all the speakers personally and here’s what you need to do if you want to succeed.
Just smile and wave.
Feeling that spark of a creative idea? Getting excited about it? This is the time for your Einstein mask. Wear this and you’re assured that anyone you share your idea with will be just as enthusiastic about it as you are. After all, no one would question Einstein’s ideas, right?
Without this mask, you risk others throwing water on your flame before it even gets hot. People don’t really mean to burst your bubble, but it can be hard for them to see how your idea could take shape and actually work. After all, they can’t read your mind. And you, being in the first flush of excitement about it, may let their opinion stop you before you even explore your options—which could rob you of the germ of an exciting project.
So if you must talk about your idea, wear this mask to protect it. Otherwise, mum’s the word!
You’ve got to do some research, and that means poking your nose in where maybe others don’t think it belongs. Don’t let fear stop you—just put on this mask (from the main character on “Murder She Wrote”) and everyone will put up with your presence even if they don’t like it!
Acting like an amateur sleuth is one of the best ways to get the answers you need even if you feel you’re being a little intrusive. Most likely you’re not investigating a murder (though you could be!), but maybe you need to crash a wedding party, scout out medical facility, eavesdrop on a club meeting, or work your way into someone’s confidence so you can gain a peek into how a place really operates.
That’s when this mask can come in really handy. Just put it on, and go marching right into wherever you need to go with your nose in the air.
This is one of my favorites.
Sometimes, you just need to dig down inside and get gritty. The writing life isn’t an easy one, and you’re likely to feel beat up, downtrodden, and like a loser more than once or twice. Put on some Survivor and don this mask, and then go tackle a flight of stairs somewhere, and see if you don’t feel better.
The key is to tap back into your own personal power, and it’s hard to do that if you’re not using your body. Even a walk at a brisk pace in the park (maybe while doing some air punches?) can be just the thing you need to get your blood flowing to your brain, which will then reward you with some ideas of how you can turn things around.
You’re not going to feel like it, especially if you’ve faced a recent defeat of some kind. (Rejection, poor sales, years of pounding on the door with no success.) That’s why you need a mask. Let yourself slip inside Rocky’s skin. How does it feel to be strong, tough, and persistent?
It works. I’ve done it more than once. Sometimes, you just gotta hit back!
Or choose your favorite magical character, here. Willow (from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” for those who don’t know), is a witch, and uses her magical powers and ability to cast spells to save herself, her friends, and her world.
There are times when creatives need to tap into their inner magical abilities. Maybe you’ve stalled on your story, you’re slogging through the middle, or you just haven’t had any good ideas lately. It’s time to cast a spell and get your juices flowing again.
How can you do that? Once you’ve slipped into Willow’s skin, think about how you’d cast a spell. What materials would you need? Some spices? Flowers? Essential oils? A special dish or crystal? Where would you cast it? A special room in your home, or maybe a quiet park, a place by the river, or a clearing in the woods?
The key is to get elaborate here. Make a project out of it. When you have everything together and you’re in your location, focus on your problem of the moment. Are your characters in trouble, and you don’t know how to get them out of it? Are you struggling to find time to write and/or market? Are you banging your head against a wall with your career and you’re not sure how to move forward?
Write a spell to solve that problem, and then speak it out loud while you light incense, sprinkle spices in a circle, play your special music, draw in the dirt, or strike your crystals together. Use your imagination. Have fun.
Most likely, when you’re done, the whole activity will have jostled your brain enough that you’ll soon notice new ideas popping in that will help you move forward again. Act “as if” you have the magical power you need to succeed, and you will!
Do you have other masks you wear as a writer or artist? Please share your thoughts with our readers.