Hypothesis: Some people write for a living (they must – how else will they pay their bills). Some people write to live (they must – the words name them, affirm them as people and set them free). And some people write because it’s time to.
The Proof (though it’s hardly empirical data): I like masks – you can probably tell that from this site. They force you to respond, to acknowledge them, even if that sometimes happens against your will. But saying “I like masks” is like saying “I like people,” or any other multi-facted multipurpose entity: you have to be prepared to embrace their pros and cons. You have to be thrilled at their enterainment potential even as you acknowledge the dangers of the ability to hide; you have to be willing to suspend disbelief to follow them into ritual even as you must accept their supplanting of the safe or familiar and delivering you into the hands of the strange and the stranger. And such is the way of words.
Even people who hate to read are desperate for words.
There’s an Ashanti story opening that goes, “We do not really mean, we do not really mean that what we are about to say is true. A story, a story; let it come, let it go.” I think that is perhaps one of the greatest story openings, mostly because of the “we.” See, for me, that “we” is me and the words and the agreement we have between us to tell a particular story, this time. But for every story we tell, there is another story we hide.
I could never make money as a writer. I am not consistent enough with it. The words come when they feel like it, and stay away when they don’t. And I cannot force the inspiration or the flow or the content to come. I cannot make my brain churn out a story that is not ready to be there. I can’t make the story out to be more or less than it is. I can’t even force the story to stick to the details that a strict historian or chronological line can identify as factual. Sometimes stories are about facts; sometimes they are about life; and sometimes they are about what happens and is felt and is shared in between those two points, like the blank spaces in a mask that will be suddenly and fleetingly filled in by a thousand pairs of shifting changeable eyes. I have the writing process down to a science (so much so that I can teach the most reticent and word-terrified to write with solid proficiency). But I cannot control the timing. At all times, a thousand ideas are rotating in my head, searching for ways to connect. It is like that circus performer, spinning the plates atop the wooden poles. Every so often, in the middle of balancing the amount of time I spend in my head and the amount I spend engaged with the world, I realize that some of those plates are spinning at exactly the same rate in exactly the same direction. This synchronization is the beginning of a pattern that is the opening of a story. In a circus act, this would be a feat of great manipulation by me (or of gimmickry to make the plates keep spinning). In real life, I am at the mercy of my own creativity and the contract it has with the universe at large. And this, too, is a kind of mask.
Masking and unmaking is a question of timing and also a matter of identity. Eventually, the mask and the wearer influence one another. Is Dr. Jekyll just Dr. Jekyll or is he also always a little Mr. Hyde? Well, that depends on how long he wears the mask of a reprobate. But that’s too easy. Is a killer clown mask scary because it’s a creepy mask, or because it’s worn by killer clowns? And is the clown a killer because of the mask or the mask a mark of terror because of the wearer? 21 questions…Perhaps at least a little data is in order. If you try to do research on masks, be prepared: there’s a lot of information. Like a deluge of facts and images. There’s no way you’ll get through it all in one sitting. You should do your research the way you might pick an actual mask for a masquerade ball: window shop, and wait for one to catch your fancy…or your eye, if I’m being on the nose.
I find myself intrigued by the idea of death masks. Why would I want to make a cast of someone’s face at the moment of death? I can’t imagine that one would need help remembering they are dead – their giant absence in your life should bring that home. And, as a learned doctor of mortuary archeology has pointed out, “in death the face loses its movement and emotion that made it the individual.” So you’re not even really preserving the person that you knew. At best, you can preserve the bones of the person that used to be. Which makes a death mask unique in that it is the only mask I know of that most accurately mirrors the association between a speaker and words.
A death mask is for me, the dead, to pierce the darkness of the hereafter and usher him or her into the next phase (depending on how far back you go in the practice). The death mask is also not for me, the recently deceased. It’s for posterity, for someone 100 years from now to get a chance to see my plaster post-mortem visage (if I’m important enough, it might have gotten painted or plated in gold). My face living on inside a glass display case in a museum, looking like me but in no way connected to me. Telling not my story but only describing the last thing I saw, if the artist was good at making a plaster cast. Or, from another point of view, capturing the last known version of me (if I was an important person from the time before there were cameras). But with each moment, moving farther and farther away from the uncapturable truth of me. Like words. The more of them you find to express yourself, the further and further away you get from the unspeakable truth of the story you must tell. Which makes all writing an act of creation from nothing, a statement of “let there be light.”
For some, words are like the nectar of the gods, essential to life and health and Being. To wonder if to me they feel more like individual drops of plaster, warm and expected, skilled and intentional and entering into a somehow unspoken symbiotic agreement that they capture the last known version of me. But always a clear sign that something vital, something human, has come to an end.
Note: I’m sorry – I really do feel the need to defend my obsession with masks from time to time. I promise it’s not just because they look cool. Although it kinda is mostly that…