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Can You Picture It? What to Do If You Can’t

Can You Picture It?  What to Do If You Can’t

Close your eyes and picture your mother’s face. What color are her eyes, what shape is her nose? If you were describing her in a literary short story, what words would you use?

For me, these questions are really difficult. When I close my eyes and try to picture my mother’s face, or anyone’s face, I get only the blurriest of notions. I might grasp for a memory, or a memory of a photo. A dream-like image of the face will emerge and then disappear almost immediately. I can’t seem to hold a face in my mind’s eye, even a very familiar one.

In fact, when I try to envision anything I have difficulty. The other day I closed my eyes and tried to picture a banana. I kept saying to myself, “long and yellow,” but those are words that describe a banana, not an image of the banana itself.

Eva and her mom.

Eva and her mom.

According to famous darling neurologist Oliver Sacks, everyone is somewhere on a continuum when it comes to how well they can picture things in their minds. Perhaps a highly-visual artist can hold a crystal-clear, detailed image of his mother’s face in his mind’s eye for hours, whereas people who were born blind are unable to “see” anything at all in their minds. Their thoughts and dreams are made of sounds and feelings instead of images. Most people, of course, fall somewhere in the middle.

And sometimes I wonder if I’m on the low end of the spectrum. I really do have difficulty picturing people’s faces when they’re not around.  And this makes something difficult when it comes to my writing: describing my characters’ physical attributes.

When I was a kid, we had this casting agency book at our house (I have no idea where it came from — our house was full of random stuff), and it was filled with headshots of models and actors of all ages. I remember flipping through the book and choosing people from it as characters to use in my stories.

I don’t know what happened to that casting agency book, but man I wish I had it now. Because when I’m writing about my characters, I often have trouble picturing what they look like. Oh sure, I can give a description telling hair color and eye color and whether or not they have teeth, but when it comes to more sophisticated or detailed descriptions, I flounder.

What I normally do is go to the Internet or magazines and try to find pictures of people who looks the way I imagine my character might look. I keep the pictures in a notebook or Word document and refer back to them when I need to write physical descriptions.

For a long time, I thought I was the only person who did this. I thought maybe it reflected badly on me and my imagination. Perhaps I was a bad writer because I couldn’t “see” my characters in my head.

What do you see in your mind's eye?  photo credit

What do you see in your mind’s eye?

But, as it turns out, lots of writers do what I do. And recently it came to my attention that some writers use Pinterest as a way to keep all of their character’s “pictures” in one place. Here I was using Pinterest to pin ideas for my wedding… Bah! This is much more useful!

So now, whenever I see a picture of a model or actor who looks the way I might imagine my character to look, or a house that seems like the type of house where my character might live, or a wedding dress that looks like one my character might wear, I can pin it on my new Pinterest board: “Character Ideas.”

I don’t have to worry about holding images in my mind after all. Pinterest can hold them for me. All I have to worry about is finding the right words to describe the pictures so that readers can see my characters in their minds’ eyes.

I would not have been able to draw this self-portrait without staring at myself in the mirror.

I would not have been able to draw this self-portrait without staring at myself in the mirror.  I can’t really picture my own face in my mind.  

A Celebrity Stole My Idea! Or, How Important Is Originality?

A Celebrity Stole My Idea! Or, How Important Is Originality?

It has recently come to my attention that a famous celebrity stole my idea for a novel.

Okay, that’s not exactly true. It’s not like the celebrity snuck into my house at night and downloaded my manuscript off my computer. In all likelihood, he doesn’t even know I exist.

What happened is that he wrote a book that sounds awfully similar to the book I wrote — the book my agent is currently trying to get published. What sucks is that the celebrity got his published first. Now it’s going to look like I’m copying him.

And I would tell you who this celebrity is, but now I’m sort of worried that you’ll steal the idea, too.

 

 

When I was in high school, I used to make mix tapes for everyone — friends, family, even some of my teachers. When I made mix tapes for my dad, he would criticize my favorite songs by saying the artists were ripping-off bands from the seventies.

“There’s no originality in music anymore,” he’d complain. “All the bands these days are just copying stuff that was already done a few decades ago.”

“So?” I’d say. “I still like these bands. I don’t care if they’re copying other people.”

kurt
And the same goes with books. Authors are influenced by other authors all the time. Diane Setterfield’s The 13th Tale borrows from gothic novels like Rebecca, and Night Film by Marisha Pessl steals from crime noir and horror novels.  Do I care? No. I loved reading those books, and in both cases, the author brought new things to the table along with the old.

According to author Anna Quindlen, “every story has already been told.” In fact, you may have learned that there are only five basic conflicts in literature, or only seven basic plots. Leo Tolstoy once said, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.”

So why do people keep on writing books if all the stories are used up? Maybe it’s because an author can tell a familiar story in a fresh way. Author Audre Lorde says, “There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.”

I agree with that, but I’m going to go one step further. I’m going to say that sometimes authors tell familiar stories in familiar ways, and that’s okay, too. Because people like stories, and we’re always going to be hungry for more, whether they’re fresh and new or they’re a recycled version of something old. It doesn’t really matter, especially if we don’t know or remember the old version.

For example, when I was fifteen, I loved a song by the band Less Than Jake called “867-5309/Jenny.” I didn’t realize until a few years later that it was actually a cover of an 80’s song performed by Tommy Tutone. Does that mean I stopped liking the Less Than Jake version? No. In fact, I still prefer it.

Having an original idea or a totally new way of telling a story is a great thing, but I don’t think it’s always necessary. Besides, unless you copy word-for-word or note-for-note, your version of a story or song is going to be different in some way by the very fact that you created it instead of someone else.  It seems to me that writing and music, and probably art in general isn’t always about originality, or at least that’s not the most important factor.  It’s more about creating something that people can enjoy or connect with or respond to.

Eva and my friend Melissa with Roger from Less Than Jake, circa 1999

Eva and friend Melissa with Roger, the bass player from Less Than Jake, circa 1999

The book by the celebrity was just released a few days ago, so I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I watched a video of him reading part of it, and it turns out that despite his book being spawned from the same basic idea as mine, his story is totally different.  It’s a children’s picture book instead of a YA novel.  His story is whimsical and full of witty asides, whereas mine is more of an adventure tale with a serious tone.  In short, despite the fact that we were both inspired by the same idea, we’re not telling the same story, nor are we telling our stories in the same way.

Perhaps authors and musicians and artists have to let go of the fear of copying someone else, or being copied.  In the end, we’re all just doing our thing, and if it turns out that our thing is similar to someone else’s, it’s really not that big of a deal because art is about more than just originality.

But I’m still not telling you who the celebrity is.

Should I Be Afraid of the Library?

Should I Be Afraid of the Library?

A few nights ago, I was asleep in bed when my fiancé, Paul, said, “babe, when you go to the library, do you walk there?”

“Yes,” I mumbled. The library is literally four blocks away from our apartment building – silly question.

“Can you not walk there anymore?” He went on to tell me in a sort-of panicked voice that there have been recent rapes and abductions in broad daylight “at the library.”

“I don’t think anybody’s getting raped at the library,” I said, sitting up in bed. “That’s crazy.”

“Well, maybe not at the library. But close to it.”

He had been looking at a crime map of Minneapolis, and there was a heavy concentration of crimes occurring a couple of blocks away from the library. Paul had read that some of the abductions had happened in the middle of the day by a man driving a van and dressed as a police officer.

“Yikes,” I said. “But only busses can drive on the street the library is on. No vans allowed.” I wasn’t willing to admit that anyone was getting raped or abducted while on their way to do something as wholesome as checking out books from the library.

On the other hand, I had seen some possibly sketchy characters in and around the library:  thuggish-looking men in big coats, groups of boys yelling obscenities, grubby-looking dudes with crazy eyes.  But that’s just downtown for you, right?

Eva and Paul

Eva and Paul

Sometimes I feel sad, or conflicted, over the fact that public libraries (especially the downtown branches, it seems) are almost always sketchy. The main library in DC smelled like urine, and the Capitol Hill branch was often filled with loud people eating McDonald’s sandwiches and watching youtube videos on the library computers. The Seattle main library was mostly a hangout for the homeless. And once, as a child, I went into the bathroom at the downtown library in Roanoke, Virginia and found a woman washing her armpits at the sink.

Sometimes it feels like I’m the only person who goes to the library with the intention of checking out books.

I’m not sure how I feel about all this. On the one hand, shouldn’t libraries be a place of reading and learning and not a hangout spot for the homeless? On the other hand, it’s a public space. Shouldn’t anyone and everyone be allowed to use it as they’d like? Park playgrounds are made for children, but Paul and I frequently play on them. Is that wrong of us?

Maybe I’m being stuck up. Maybe the homeless people are using the library to read and learn. Or maybe I’m just calling people sketchy because they don’t look and act like me.

Minneapolis downtown library.  It's a pretty cool building.

Minneapolis downtown library. It’s a pretty cool building.

So Paul told me he doesn’t want me walking to the library anymore — he will go pick up my books for me.  And in fact, he’d feel better if I didn’t walk outside by myself …ever.

“Uhh… I understand you don’t want me to get raped,” I said, “but you can’t tell me that I can never go outside by myself. That’s unreasonable.”

This is the thing I hate about being a girl. People are always telling me I can’t do things or go places because it’s not safe. Because I might get raped or abducted or assaulted. And perhaps, sometimes, they’re right. I’ve probably been really lucky that all the times I’ve walked alone at night or gone hiking by myself nothing bad has happened. But I hate living my life in fear. I hate not being able to go where I want when I want. I’ll concede to not walking alone at night, but dear god, can’t I at least walk to the library in the middle of the day?

It’s hard for me to know — is this really something to be afraid of, or is this a case of being uppity and fearful of people who perhaps only look sketchy?

Paul showed me the crime map, and I had to admit that perhaps he had reason to be afraid.

“I just love you so much,” he said, “and if you got abducted, I would be devastated.”

So we made a compromise. I could still take walks on the trails along the river, which are often populated with joggers and bikers and which, according to the crime map, are safe. If I walk downtown, I have to take the Skyway, or walk with someone else, or, at very least, text Paul when I leave and then text him as soon as I get home. I won’t walk alone at night, and I will try to save my trips to the library for the weekends so that Paul can come with me.

I guess it can’t hurt for me to be careful, and I know that Paul’s worry is born out of his love, but still, it can be frustrating to hear:  a girl can’t even pick up her books at the library without worrying about getting raped.

This makes me really annoyed.

I’m not sure what to do about it, but like everything, it probably has to do balance. I have to accept that as a female I need to be more careful — that’s just the way it is (for now). But I’m not going to keep myself locked up in my apartment either. I’m going where I want, even (heaven help us!) to the library, and no matter what, I refuse to live my life in fear!

No Doubt sang about this very thing in “Just a Girl.

“The moment that I step outside, so many reasons for me to run and hide.  I can’t do the little things I love so dear!   It’s all those little things that I fear….  ‘Cause I’m just a girl.  I’d rather not be.  Cuz they won’t let me drive late at night…  I’ve had it up to here!”

A “Fun” Story from High School, or, Whaaaaat?

A “Fun” Story from High School, or, Whaaaaat?

I work with college kids, and the other day one of them asked me if I had any “fun high school stories.”

“Yes, I do,” I replied. He looked at me expectantly, but I only smiled and went back to work.

But later I started thinking, what “fun” high school stories do I have? And then a story floated to me out of the fog of memory.

Senior year of high school, I told everyone I had a crush on a young substitute teacher who we’ll call Mr. Watson. Mr. Watson was tall, pale, and extremely thin. He had a gaunt face and a mop of dark hair, and his frail body always seemed to be trembling. Even his voice, which carried the hint of a British accent, was tremulous, as if he were always on the verge of tears. I told all my friends I thought he was dead sexy, and my friend Nikki agreed.

I’m not sure that I was actually attracted to Mr. Watson. I was certainly fascinated by him, and I was into the skinny, emo type, but it’s clear to me now that part of my crush had to do with the fact that Mr. Watson was safe. I could talk about him and fantasize about him without the fear of rejection or awkwardness…or so I thought.

He was the substitute for my health class several times, and I must have struck up conversations with him because I remember we talked about movies and he recommended I watch Harold & Maude and Educating Rita, both of which Nikki and I rented and watched so that we’d have something to talk to Mr. Watson about the next time we saw him.

One day, Nikki and I were at the public library when we saw a man who looked like Mr. Watson except a little healthier — a fuller face and rosier complexion. We went over to him and, as it turned out, he was Mr. Watson’s twin brother. Nikki and I could barely contain our glee. Now there was a Watson for both of us! We decided that Nikki could have the new Watson, “ Bryan”, and I would have the original, more frail Watson, “ John.”

Bryan said that John had actually mentioned us to him. “He said you’re both so poised and intelligent it’s hard to believe you’re still in high school.”

Nikki and I blushed but ate up the compliment.

Somehow, during our conversation at the library, we ended up exchanging phone numbers with Bryan Watson, and the next thing I knew, Nikki and I were going out to dinner with the Watson brothers.

Eva and Nikki, many years after the Watson Twins Incident

Eva and Nikki, many years after the Watson Twins Incident

This is the point in my memory where I go “whaaat? Did that really happen?” But yes, yes it did. Nikki and I were seventeen. We went to dinner at a Chinese buffet with John and Bryan Watson who were both twenty-six, and one of whom worked at our high school. It’s unclear to me now why any of us thought this was a good idea, but anyway, there we were, eating egg rolls and talking about god-knows-what.

We did find out more about the Watson brothers. They had lived in England as children, hence the accent, and now they both lived with their mother in a little ranch house near our school. Also, John had fallen out of a tree as a young boy, and ever since then he had suffered from tremors.

The dinner stretched on and on with no one wanting to be the one to end things. Finally the Watsons paid the bill, and we all walked to the parking lot to say our awkward goodbyes. John gave me a hug and Nikki hugged Bryan. It seemed they already understood how things had been divvied up.

On the drive home, I said, “you know, that was kind of insane. Do you think they thought that was a date?” I wasn’t sure how I felt about the whole situation.

The next day, my phone rang, and it was Mr. Watson. I don’t know exactly how the conversation went, but I do know that at one point he asked me, in his stuttering voice, “Eva, d-d-do you fancy me?”

My heart plunged to my gut and my face flushed with embarrassment. Was I about to be rejected by Mr. Watson? Or was he about to suggest we go on another date? I wasn’t comfortable with either option.

“No,” I said. “I like you as a friend.”

“Because, y-you know, it’s not uncommon f-for professors t-to marry their students.”

What did he mean? That he wanted to marry me? It suddenly dawned on me that this was really happening. This wasn’t a fantasy or a joke between friends anymore. There was an actual twenty-six year old man on the phone who had possible romantic intentions towards me.

“Ummm, my mom’s calling me,” I said quickly. “I have to go.” I hung up the phone.

And that was it. We never heard from the Watsons again, and we never saw Mr. Watson at school either. We asked about him eventually and were told that he had quit because he was joining the Navy.

“He’s much too frail to join the Navy,” I told Nikki. I wondered if he had quit because of us.

We drove by the Watson’s house once, but we didn’t see any cars out front, and we weren’t sure we actually wanted to see the twins anyway. “They were weird,” Nikki said, and I agreed.

 

Mr. Watson suggested I watch Harold & Maude, a movie about a romance between an 18-year-old boy and a nearly-80-year-old woman. Coincidence?

And to this day, I don’t really know what to think of the Watsons. Were they just socially-awkward dudes living with their mom who couldn’t get girls their own age? Or were they creepy predators who had bad intentions in store for us?

Looking back on it, two things dawn on me. The first is that Nikki and I were pretty stupid and naïve, and we’re lucky that nothing bad happened. The second is that this is the start of what could be a really awesome novel.

Because of course, in the novel version, things wouldn’t end where they did. They would only just be getting started. And bad things would happen. I’m salivating at the thought of all the crazy, dark, exciting places this story could go. Stalking, kidnapping, mental disorders, attempted murder… And it’s been enough time that I’m not attached to the actual facts — the facts are blurry to me now anyway. I’m ready to take the bones of this story and flesh it out into something truly fascinating (and probably frightening.)

All this because a student asked me if I had any fun high school stories. Makes me wonder why I don’t ask myself that question more often…

What other crazy stories might I have?  What about you?  Do you have any fun stories from high school?

What other crazy stories might I have? What about you? Do you have any fun stories from high school?

You Can Go Your Own Way: Why Meditation is Like Writing

You Can Go Your Own Way:  Why Meditation is Like Writing

Paul and I don’t go to church, but every Sunday we have “spiritual time” in which we read something, discuss it, then meditate for fifteen minutes. So far we’ve read True Love by Thich Nhat Hahn, good portions of Huston Smith’s The World Religions, and we’re currently working our way through Sakyong Mipham’s Turning the Mind into an Ally, the title of which I thought for the longest time was “Turning the Mind into an Alley,” which makes a little bit less sense.

When we first started spiritual time, we only read and discussed, but everything we read seemed to be saying the same thing in different words: meditation is the key to spiritual enlightenment.

I know meditation is mostly seen as a Buddhist thing, or a yoga thing, or a granola-hippy thing, but really it’s at the heart of every major religion, even Christianity. What do you think Jesus was doing out there in the desert for forty days? Probably meditating. How did all those saints hear the voice of God or become enraptured with the spirit? Maybe because they were able to clear their minds and truly listen.

So, even though both Paul and I had tried and failed many times in the past to keep a meditation routine, we decided to try again. This time, together. It’s easier to meditate when someone else is doing it with you, and it’s harder to skip a day of practice, too. We’ve even stepped up our game recently to meditating three nights a week.

Drawing by Eva!

Drawing by Eva!

The other night we sat down on the floor and set the timer. I pressed start and made a gong sound, like I always do, and we both closed our eyes.

And it suddenly came to me how much meditation is like writing…

There are a million different books about meditation and a million more about writing. But reading about it is not the same as doing it. You can gather all the sage-like advice you want, but still, sitting down with your mind or a blank page is going to be hard, no matter how much you’ve read on the subject. Nothing you read can quite prepare you for the experience.

In these books on meditation or writing, you’ll read all sorts of rules and learn about all sorts of methods. I’ve read thatI should keep my eyes slightly open while meditating; I’ve also read to keep them closed. I should focus on my breath, or a candle flame, or a mental image. (I’ve also heard that focusing on a candle flame will damage my retna.) I should imagine my breath as a snake, or a wave, or a ray of light. I should lie down, I should sit in lotus position, I should sit in a chair with my feet on the floor.  I should meditate with sacred ash on my third eye. I should do alternate-nostril breathing. I shouldn’t meditate on a full stomach. I was once told I have to meditate every day or it “won’t work.”

But I’ve also read that there’s no “right” way to meditate. And I think the same is true about writing. You can read all the advice in the world about how to write and how often, but when it comes down to it, there’s no right way. Only what works for you.

So you close your eyes and focus on the breath. Thoughts come. You notice them — you try not to judge them! You try to let them go. Time goes by, your mind drifts, and you wonder, but am I doing this right? When is something spiritual going to happen? Why am I doing this anyway?

It’s the same way when you sit down to write. You try not to judge the sentences that come out. You wonder if they’re any good — if you’re doing it right. You wonder if anything will ever happen with your writing — publication, money, respect. You wonder why you’re doing this difficult and lonely thing anyway.

The answers to all of these questions are as follows:

There is no right way when it comes to meditation or writing. There are some things that work better than others, but all the methods lead to the same goal. You are doing it, and that’s all that matters.

Even though you are on a path, try to let go of the idea that it will lead somewhere. I know how hard this is.  You want to know that one day your book will be published, or that one day meditation will lead to a less stressful, more enlightened life.  Otherwise, why would you being doing it, right?  But you can’t get hung up on the place you want to go and neglect the place you are now or you’ll never reach your goal. Instead, do it for the experience you have in the very moment of meditation or writing. It’s not always fun or interesting or easy. But it’s an opportunity to go inside yourself, and that’s important. Whatever happens later on doesn’t matter for now. Try to be proud of yourself for the fact that your are even meditating or writing in the first place.

Your way is the right way!

When it comes to meditation or writing, you can go your own way!

The timer sounds, and I realize, oh crap, I’ve spent a chunk of my meditation time following one big thought about how meditation is like writing. Sigh. It sure ain’t easy. But I’ll try again soon.

Should You Write a Novel in a Month (NaNoWriMo)?

Should You Write a Novel in a Month (NaNoWriMo)?

November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, and this past Saturday, writers all over the world accepted the challenge to write 50,000 words of a new novel by November 30th. The NaNoWriMo website offers tips, ways to track your progress, a network of support, and even prizes for those who reach the goal. The focus is completion — the writing itself doesn’t have to be great. In other words,since the first attempt at novel is a vomit draft anyway, NaNoWriMo wants you stop waiting around for the flu and just jam your finger down your own throat.

Sorry. That was probably gross. But the question is, should you participate in NaNoWriMo? Take the following quiz to find out.

November 1st was Dia de los Muerots.  It was also the start of NaNoWriMo.

November 1st was Dia de los Muerots. It was also the start of NaNoWriMo.

#1 What is your background in writing?

A. I have completed at least one novel, and I write on a frequent basis.
B. I talk about writing a lot, and I got an A in my college creative writing class.
C. I’ve written a few short stories, and I’ve always wanted to try writing a novel.
D. I’m always thinking of good ideas for novels.

 

#2 Why do you want to do NaNoWriMo?

A. It seems like an interesting challenge.
B. If I meet the challenge it will prove to everyone that I’m a real writer.
C. I have a novel I’ve been wanting to write, and I hope this will give me the push I need to get it written.
D. It seems cool, and it’s probably not that hard. Didn’t Kerouac write On the Road in three weeks?

 

#3 How ready are you to start writing?

A. I have a novel I’m already working on, so I’d have to think of something new for this challenge.
B. I’ve read every blog post I can find about NaNoWriMo, and I have a really good writing group set up.
C. I have an outline of sorts, and I’ve written a few character sketches.
D. I had this dream once that I think would make a really cool novel. Either that or I could write a novel loosely-based on my high school experiences.

 

#4 How much time do you have to dedicate to writing?

A. I have a weekly writing schedule that seems to work well for me.
B. I broke up with my boyfriend for the month of November so I’d have more time for NaNoWriMo.
C. I can find an hour or two each day.
D. I’m married with kids and I work 50 hours a week. Plus my mother-in-law is coming to stay with us for the month. So I’ll be doing most of my writing at four in the morning.

 

#5 How do you feel about the NaNoWriMo website?

A. To be honest, I’d rather spend my time writing than trying to figure out the “badges” and whatnot on the website.
B. I love it. I’ve read all their prep resources and been on their forums. I follow NaNoWriMo on Twitter.
C. I’ve created my account and clicked around a bit. I think it’s going to be really helpful when I hit a day of writer’s block or frustration.
D. Wait, there’s a website?

 

#6 What will you do if you miss a day of writing?

A. I’ll write for twice as long the following day if I can.
B. I won’t. I’ll stay up writing all night if I have to. And if I do miss a day, I’ll punish myself by not eating until I’ve written twenty pages.
C. As long as I stick to my daily writing goals, it should be fine to miss a day here and there. I’ll call them “rest days.”
D. Do I really have to write every day?

 

#7 How will you feel if you don’t reach the 50,000 word goal?

A. A little disappointed, but if I like what I’ve done I’ll keep working on it.
B. Like a complete failure and waste of space.
C. I hope to meet the goal, but if I don’t I’ll just set a new goal for myself to reach 50,000 words by the end of 2014.
D. Eh, whatever.

National Novel Writing Month.  photo credit.

National Novel Writing Month. photo credit.

 

If you answered mostly A’s: Although NaNoWriMo might be a fun challenge for you, you seem self-motivated already, and you’ve got your writing habit down-pat. Go for it if you want, but your own system seems to be working pretty well.

If you answered mostly B’s: You like the idea of writing a book in a month more than the book you’re supposed to be writing. Be careful that you’re not spending more time online or talking about your novel than you are writing. Also, lighten up a bit. If writing a novel in a month is causing you too much stress, set your own writing goals.

If you answered mostly C’s: You seem like the perfect candidate for NaNoWriMo! You’ve got your outline and idea, and this is going to give you the push you need to get those words down on paper. Go for it!

If you answered mostly D’s: It doesn’t seem like you’re that serious about writing. You might not have the time or motivation you need to stick to the challenge of 50,000 words in a month. Reassess and consider if this is the right thing for you to commit to.

Rah, rah, rah.  Goooo writers!

Rah, rah, rah. Goooo writers!

And for all those who are participating in NaNoWriMo:  good luck!  Now stop reading this blog post and get back to work!

The Masks We Wear & a Writing Identity

The Masks We Wear & a Writing Identity

When I was three years old my mom dressed me up as a clown for Halloween.  I guess she didn’t realize I was afraid of clowns.

“Eva, take a look at yourself,” she said.  I stood in front of the mirror and immediately started screaming.  She tried to take me around the neighborhood trick-or-treating, but since I wouldn’t stop crying and shrieking in terror, she eventually took me home and washed off the make-up.

I think we’ve all had this experience at one point in our lives at least, where we take a look at ourselves and don’t recognize, or even like, what we see.  We’ve been wearing masks, we’ve been putting on an act.  Sometimes you get so into your act you start to believe it’s your real self.  Then you wake up one morning, take a look in the mirror, and wonder, “who am I, really?”

Paul and Eva wearing masks at a Masquerade Ball.

Paul and Eva wearing masks at a Masquerade Ball.

This question has been confusing me lately.  First of all, I’m getting married in April.  For so long I was a single girl, and my identity was very much tied to being independent, on my own, doing my own thing.  Now I have to try to understand myself as a part of a couple.  Joseph Campbell says when you marry, “you’re no longer this one alone; your identity is in a relationship.”  He says, “it is, in a sense, doing one’s own thing, but the one isn’t just you, it’s the two together as one.”

That’s beautiful and wise, and maybe we’ll use it for one of our wedding readings, but it’s also scary as hell.  I spent thirty-three years trying to get to know myself, and now I have to dissolve myself into what Campbell calls the “alchemical stage” — two people being melted down and reformed into one.

So there’s that.

There’s also all the Buddhist and spiritual stuff Paul and I have been reading lately.  So many of these texts seem to say that to find happiness and enlightenment, we must stop holding on to the impermanent notion of ourselves as individuals and instead see the bigger picture.  In Turning the Mind into an Ally, Sakyong Mipham says “the web of thoughts we solidified as “me” is actually a series of vibrations…believing that thought patterns are a solid self is the source of our bewilderment.”  True happiness and liberation, he says, “is life without the illusion of “me” — or “you.”

That’s kind of scary as well.  I’m not sure that I want to let go of “me” and “you.”  Not yet.

But then, back to the question, who am I anyway?  Am I my thoughts and emotions?  (Mipham would say no.)  Am I my relationships?  (Campbell might say yes.)  Am I my actions?  If I am, what does it mean if there are some things I used to do that I don’t do anymore?  Am I becoming less of myself?  Is the “me” I thought I knew just an illusion?

Plate I made in 2nd grade.

Plate I made in 2nd grade.

Recently my mom sent me a care package and in it she included a plate I made in second grade.  The teacher must have told us to draw ourselves and the things we like.  According to the plate, I liked  washing the car, playing beach ball, “lesing” (listening) to music, and writing.

“Not much has changed,” I said to Paul.

“Do you like washing the car?”

“I like going through the car wash,” I said.  But really, it was the picture the in the bottom right corner of the plate that gave me such relief:  that picture of a pencil and a piece of paper filled with scribbles.  I’ve been writing stories ever since I was five years old.  I’ve changed in other ways; I’ve worn a lot of masks and put on acts for myself and others, but I can honestly say that writing has always been a part of who I truly am.

That’s comforting.

And the great thing is, not only is writing a part of the impermanent but still important “me,” but the act of doing it also helps me understand myself better.  When I’m feeling lost, when I’m not feeling totally like myself, I sit down at my laptop and write, and what comes out usually gives me a clue.  It’s a way to take off the mask and remember who I am underneath.

Eva Langston

Eva Langston

 

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