Some writers talk about themselves as though they have two identities: their writing self and their everyday self.
For instance, science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, stated that it is his child-self who authored his fiction, not his adult self. When Bradbury felt weighed down by the responsibilities of adulthood or heavy with dark thoughts or emotion, a sensation he described as ‘a long damp November in my soul’, he knew that it was time to reconnect or return to the younger version of himself. The one who was filled with ‘multitudinous joys’ and ‘terrible nightmares.’ He says, ‘I’m not sure where he leaves off and I start. But I’m proud of the tandem team.’
A writer’s ability to compartmentalise their identity not only allows them to better enter the mind of their characters but to also be more transparent about their own life experience. Authors who write essays or memoirs find writing, as a form, to be an easier way to express or share their true selves.
Many writers have spoken about how they can write, in-explicit detail, about events or thoughts that they’d find nearly impossible to talk about with another person. Sometimes they even discuss these topics in panels in front of audiences. For some reason, expressing those same experiences or thoughts in the privacy of their own lives is more difficult than putting it on paper, even when they know it will be later read by an audience. This would of course make sense if the writer was using a pen name, but often this is not the case. Perhaps this comes from some kind of denial around how many people will read the article or book, or it is further proof of how rarely the people closest to us read our work (!), but perhaps it’s simply because the work itself acts as a buffer. We can express ourselves fully without interruption and we can shape our ideas until we’re happy with them. Plus, we don’t have to listen to the other side of that conversation, unless, of course, a reader DMs us or sends an email.
Margaret Attwood writes extensively about this notion of two identities in her book, Neogration with the Dead (2002), in which a writer may ‘split’ themselves in a way that is similar to a double or doppelgänger: there is the writing self and the non-writing self. Our non-writing self is the one who cleans the house, goes to a day job, and grocery shops. The writing self exists in the same body, only we don’t recognaise ourselves in the work that it produces.
I think we’ve all had the experience when we’ve looked at something we’ve written and thought, ‘Where did that come from?’ You may think of yourself as a nice person, but then on the page, you put your characters through hell or you write characters who are morally grey and whose actions and worldviews differ wildly from your own. We are not always ourselves when we are writing.
Personally, I see little division between my life and my writing. Not because I embed my life in my fiction, but because I chose to see all aspects of my life as being connected to and informing my writing.
My writing self is no different to the self who puts the rubbish out on Sunday night.
And yet, there is a shift that happens when I start writing. There is a deep focus that takes over when you are working on a project. You don’t always write the story you thought you would write, instead, instinct, intuition, and something that can only be called magic occurs.
You work with the story, following whatever internal logic the narrative creates for itself. Writing is a form of escapism, and that may also include escaping yourself.
I don’t know that I full prescribe to the concept of a distinct writing identity that is separate from myself, but I can say that when I am writing and when I am in flow with writing, the minutia of life falls away and the only thing that feels real is the words that appear before me.
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