Sunday, August 31, 2008

Persona

Provincetown is now a memory, but I have 150-pages, enough to say I have more than a backbone for my new novel. Now if only, if only, I can keep a little of that momentum and continue to make progress, however small, thoughout the school year.

The first week of Fall semester is over, and with it a flurry of activity: meeting new classes, preparing talking notes, and working on a teaching portfolio due to the college on September 2.

Working on talking notes for Walt Whitman during this long weekend, I have been thinking again about how writers create a persona in order to tell their stories (or write their poems). The longer I write, the more I come to understand this process of donning the mask.

It is quite a paradox that someone like me, who values authenticity to an extreme, should find herself putting on masks and telling "lies."

When I was at Provincetown, I went to a library book sale and found a great old book by Sherwood Anderson called Tar. It is a beautiful old book, published in 1928. In the introduction to Tar, Anderson wrote of how he had sat down to tell his autobiography but found it quite impossible until he had created a fictional character (Tar) through which to stage his utterance. He called his process "an old writer's trick." It is very old, indeed.

In Latin, persona means mask. It refers to the mask worn by actors in ancient theater. But the true origin of persona is in archaic rituals; it is related to archaic religion. The Iroquois had a healing ritual involving masks. They believed that if you saw a demon in a dream, you had to carve a likeness of the demon and wear the likeness as a mask. The mask gave the dreamers power over their ordeal and also the power to cure others.

When Walt Whitman says, "I depart as air," he doesn't just speak of the wind or to the wind, he becomes the wind. And he then steals the primitive power of the wind for himself. When he says, "I am untranslatable, / I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world" he partakes--becomes one with--the primal world. And when he says, "You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, / But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood" he travels through our veins and is pumped by our hearts. We become strong and aware like he was--we take on his qualities--because we drink his words as Siegfried drank the blood of the dragon he slayed. Adopting a persona has a quality of animism.

Whitman's persona of the oracle is brilliant. He can be anything or anyone; he contains multitudes; he cuts through time and becomes part of what is eternal.

I think the adopting of a persona is the hardest thing for writers to learn. It means creating a second-self.

The persona, of course, does not need to be a demon. It can be an angel; it can be an oracle (as in the case of Whitman); it can be a serial-killer; it can be a little child; it can be an inanimate object. The point is, it cannot be you.

Your psyche will always keep the deepest part of your real self hidden. But you can imagine the deepest part of a second-self; or the second-self can help you to unearth the some parts of yourself that you characteristically hide. And you can reveal those things safely from behind the mask.

Creating a persona is an exercize in magical thinking. It is very hard to discover how to do it; it is a mysterious process. But until the process is mastered, our works will not be everything they can be.

If you would understand me go to the heights or water-shore,
The nearest gnat is an explanation, and a drop or motion of waves a key,
The maul, the oar, the hand-saw, second my words.

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"I was no better than dust, yet you cannot replace me. . . Take the soft dust in your hand--does it stir: does it sing? Has it lips and a heart? Does it open its eyes to the sun? Does it run, does it dream, does it burn with a secret, or tremble In terror of death? Or ache with tremendous decisions?. . ." --Conrad Aiken

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