Monday, August 31, 2009

Chameleon or True Blue?

This post isn't really about story structure. It does have something to do with character (in that "there are two types of people in the world" kind of way). But it's not officially fall, yet, right? That would be the day after Labor Day. So technically this is the last week of summer and no one is going to be reading anyway, and I can actually just ramble.

I find myself now, for various reasons, in a sort of therapy (is that vague enough? Because I can easily be more vague…) which requires that I regularly talk about my thoughts and feelings, and things like How I Am.

Some of you who have met me in person have noticed and called me on the fact that I rarely talk much about myself – I’m very good at turning the conversation to YOU so that I don’t have to disclose anything. (Or maybe more because I have no idea How I Am. Remember, I started blogging about story structure primarily so I wouldn’t have to talk about myself anymore… and anyway if I’m at a conference the answer is always the same - I’m deliriously happy. Who wouldn’t be?)

To a certain extent all writers are good at this, turning the conversation onto someone else, because hey, it’s character research. Maybe in fact all good writers are good at it, and only the annoying ones that you would never read anyway talk about themselves all the time (and I know you all know who I mean).

But in this therapy I am very good at talking about myself. I disclose all kinds of things. I even cry. Because I am nothing if not a good student, expert at discerning what a teacher (or director or choreographer) wants from me.

When I was doing improv I had directors who called personal disclosures like the ones I am now engaged in “California Scenes”. It wasn’t a compliment. A California scene is when you just dump every sordid detail of your character’s life onto your scene partner – and never actually tell the real truth.

The thing is, what truth? What real?

What I mean is, how do I know what’s me when I just spent four hours in what was basically a dissociative state as a sixteen-year old girl tracking a potential mass murderer through the back tunnels of a shopping mall? I can tell you her feelings, but those aren’t really my feelings. Except that for the last four hours, they were.

When you spend most of your waking day being someone else, and most of the rest of it dreaming, who are you really?

This is I think why, for so long, actors were shunned by society and not allowed to be buried in hallowed ground. (That I suppose and all that unhallowed sex). Because they’re not really real. You never know who they are. But then what about us writers who play EVERY part, constantly, plus sometimes an omniscient narrator on top of that? How much less real does that make us?

When I and my siblings were in high school, my brother once brought home a Cosmo magazine with one of those great Cosmo quizzes (you know you all love them): Are you a Chameleon or a True Blue? And said to my sister and me: “Right there is the problem. I’m a True Blue and you two are Chameleons.” And okay, yeah, we didn’t even have to take the quiz to know that he was right. But we did take the quiz, and he was right.

Day to day I’m actually quite fine with my Chameleon nature, because it IS who I am. But I’m less comfortable with it in therapy; it makes me feel like I’m lying. Maybe because in the group I seem to be surrounded by True Blues. But maybe those people have a very strong sense of who I am, and I’m the one who doesn’t.

Now, we all write ourselves as characters, to a certain extent or another. I certainly am not as much any character I’ve written as Cornelia is Madeleine Dare, not even in the same universe, but I can point to certain characters in certain books and say definitively that they’re more me than others. I’ve noticed our readers play that game, too (just the other day someone here commented that she sees Tess when she reads Maura Isles, and really, who doesn’t?). Only at least with me, they’re mostly wrong. People think I’m Laurel MacDonald because there are places in THE UNSEEN where she says things in my voice, and I used a lot of my California-to-North Carolina experience in the book. But she’s a lot prettier than I am and also worlds less sure of herself… she’s softer, so much so that I don’t much relate to her. I’ve also had people say to me, “Do you know someone like Robin (in THE HARROWING)? Because she seems so real but you’re not at all like her.” But actually I am very much like her, but that’s just one half of me, and the other half, that masks her, is another character in the book.

I am very grateful for the conference circuit, which for me provides a very grounding, real-life balance to the all that writing and dissociation I do. I can find myself again in large groups of people (well, especially if there’s dancing), and when I am forced to talk about myself (on panels, etc.), I remember who I am, apart from the random dreamlike state that writing is.

But I guess this is what is puzzling me. Are ALL writers Chameleons, or are some of us True Blues who easily snap back into our “real” selves once we turn off the computer for the day? Are some people with “real” jobs as much Chameleons as actors or writers, playing a completely different part or parts during the day, at work, which parts are as much a dissociative state as writing?

What do you think? Are you a Chameleon or a True Blue?

And for bonus points, writers: which characters that you’ve written are most like you? Readers, which characters do YOU think are most like the authors who write them? And most importantly, why do you think actors were not allowed to be buried in hallowed ground?

- Alex


Alex will be in New Orleans this Labor Day weekend for Heather Graham’s unmissable Writers for New Orleans Conference, teaching Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, paneling, and (thank God) being herself by playing a pirate wench and riverboat prostitute with Heather’s Slush Pile Players.

Pitch sessions available with editors and publishers Leslie Wainger, Adam Wilson, Eric Raab, Ali deGray, Kate Duffy and Helen Rosburg, and you still have time to sign up for the best party of the year.


Gayle Carline said...

I'd like to be True Blue, but I'm a Chameleon. In my family, I learned to be whatever the room needed - a scholar today? You got it. No - a clown? Okie-dokie. A mouse? Shhh, I'm not even here. As I grow older, I'm getting more True Blue - turns out I'm kinda cranky and pretty irreverent, but in a fun way.

My main character, Peri, is sort of like me - she's impatient, sarcastic, and curious. The main differences are that she's not good at nurturing, and she says things out loud that I only think.

Why aren't actors allowed to be buried in hallowed ground? I don't know. Maybe the church can't forgive them for making Mondays dark instead of Sundays. The aetheists get all the good seats at the Sunday matinees.


Gene said...

I'm a chameleon who can, upon occasion, turn suddenly into a true blue. Or maybe I just think that. Seriously, I had to accept that I was sort of "out there" long ago - and really I'm okay with it. Except those times when I'm not okay with it at all. It's those times when I think that, deep down, I'm at heart a true blue, who thinks that maybe being a true blue is a bit boring, and so loves to travel into the "freak-a-delic" world of the chameleon.

So you see I don't really know who or what I am. :-)

I remember an interview with Stephen King which took place shortly after he became really famous. The author was asked, in relation to all of the fears he seemed to have, which so obviously came out in his books: "Have you ever sought therapy for all of your fears?"

I've forgotten his exact answer, but he replied something like: "Well, no, because then I'd have to pay the therapist money. What I decided to do was keep my fears - and take HIS money."

I like that. :-)

Jeffe Kennedy said...

Call me cynical, but I don't believe there are "True Blues." I think there are just people who locked the chameleon into one place and usually because of some kind of issue.

Institutions, like churches, prefer people be locked into one place. Most religious ritual requires repetition of the exact same thing, with the goal being adherence to a particular line of thinking.

Actors, therefore, are the devil in this scenario!

BT said...

Not trying to start an argument with Jeffe, but I'm definitely a Blue (and not only because I'm an Aussie).

I worry more about not being able to slip into a chameleon skin to touch my creative side, and when I do manage it, I feel very much like a fraud and worry that the end result will be thin and transparent. I'm almost positive people will hate it and call me out for being someone playing at being creative, rather than a naturally artistic individual.

All writers may have their insecurities, but Blues could be insecure about being insecure, because they don't fit with the whimsical, and wonderfully creative stereotype of the writer.

We tend to worry about being too wooden. Another label for Blue may very well be Pinocchio.

Mary Stella said...

I'm both, depending on the situation, surroundings and people. I think no matter what each of us does professionally, we sometimes have to be "on" and that means donning the business persona no matter how we, the person, are feeling or what we're thinking.

The best part is when the "on" persona and the "true blue" part of ourselves aren't very far apart. In my day job, I truly enjoy sharing about our organization to the media. My enthusiasm is sincere. I feel it while I'm spouting it. The only time I have to stifle is when I'm forced to deal with someone who is totally obnoxious. I might be thinking, "What a jerk" but can't let that show, or come out of my mouth.

At conferences, I really like getting together with other writers, meeting new people, meeting readers and fans. So, does being "on" mean we're being insincere. I don't believe so. However, if we're secretly having a really bad day, we don't bring that out to the forefront. The interactions between writer and fan are more about the fan and their experience of the meeting. So to inject our personal traumas, bad moods, or frustrations would make it more about us. So, the chameleon takes the lead. Then, when we're back in our rooms, or among our close friends, we can let down a little.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gayle, I can relate to being "whatever the room needed". I tend to balance - if someone's an extrovert, I'm a good listener. If no one's talking, I'll take the stage.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Gene, LOL!! I love that King quote. Thank you!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Yeah, Jeffe, I have to agree with BT - I've known too many Blues to think they're frauds.

That's interesting about the fear of being wooden... it makes sense, and that's a great personality trait to explore.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Mary Stella, this could not be more true - I'm going to quote the whole thing just because it's so perfectly said!!

>>>So, does being "on" mean we're being insincere. I don't believe so. However, if we're secretly having a really bad day, we don't bring that out to the forefront. The interactions between writer and fan are more about the fan and their experience of the meeting. So to inject our personal traumas, bad moods, or frustrations would make it more about us. So, the chameleon takes the lead. Then, when we're back in our rooms, or among our close friends, we can let down a little. <<<

Can't wait to see you this weekend!

Bobby Mangahas said...

It's like Joss Whedon said: "Always be yourself...unless you suck."

I really would like to make it to one of those Writers for New Orleans sometime. But right now I'm focused on making Thrillerfest next year.

Erik said...

Well, I don't quite know which I am. I guess I may tend more towards the chameleon insofar that I say what I think needs to be said which ever side it may be on. I play devil's advocate a lot trying to draw more out of people, just knowing that just about everyone almost all the time will have one valid point somewhere is important.

When I write I find the side characters are the ones I connect with the most, watching the story happening before them almost like someone who might be reading it. They are the ones who bring a bit of scope to things and such. But anyways, I look forward to your proper articles on story structure and whatnot.

Katie said...

I came to writing through music, which in a more subtle way interacts with your whole self. How I felt wasn't important. What mattered was the mood of the music, and I had to change my internal barometer to meet it.

With writing, I can keep a little more self and still be in a character's head and speak with their voice.

I think what I've seen is that whether I'm 'me' or the person I'm writing about. If I relax and let go of what's supposed to happen, I can feel the breath of my soul.

So, I don't think you're being 'fake' when you can't necessarily identify how YOU are feeling and who YOU are today, because you are a part of something wonderful and mysterious, and maybe, just maybe you are all those parts melded into one.

Sonja Foust said...

When I first began to write "seriously" in middle school or so, my characters were representations of what I WANTED to be, and as I grew into myself, I became more and more like my ideal self, and therefore more like the characters I'd written.

I think, in some ways, the good parts of my characters are still pieces of me that maybe aren't quite realized yet, but I'm working on it.

Is that backwards, to make myself more like my characters, rather than to make my characters like myself?

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Actually I think that's pretty enlightened and transcendent of you, Sonja!