By James Patrick Kelly
For some reason I never got the Halloween memo. Oh sure, as a kid I put on the plastic mask and flammable superhero/pirate/spaceman costume and collected my share of sugary swag. But, as an alleged grown-up, I have dressed for Halloween maybe a handful of times, and certainly not in the last twenty-some years.
Why should this be?
Maybe it has something to do with my aversion to candy corn, or perhaps it’s that I dress up and put on a mask pretty much every time I write.
Like much of the Stonecoast faculty, I practice my craft in multiple genres. I write fiction—stories and novels—and personal essays and even the occasional poem. But even when I represent myself as the “real” me in an essay or in my column for Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, I am striking a rhetorical pose.
The Jim Kelly you might bump into at the Stone House has some pleasant qualities, I suppose, but he has never been so focused as the implied author of this sentence. His diction is not as precise and his command of his material is informed by his sometimes faulty memory instead of hard research. Rather than spur-of-the-moment opinion, this literary construct offers considered views.
In short, you are gazing upon an authorial mask just now—that of Artificially-Sweetened Jim.
And yet that mask is ineluctably mine.
The tension between self and mask is one of the most attractive parts of being a writer of fiction, and also one of the most frustrating. It gives us the radical freedom to be much more brave and sexy and honest and insightful than we are in real life. It is also a license to interrogate our darkest impulses: We can, with impunity, kill our fathers and sleep with our mothers, ruin our enemies and cheat our friends. (Of course, poets can do all of this as well; even those who practice the art of confession are accomplished mask-makers.)
We have the freedom to pretend outrageously on the page and then duck into the shelter of make-believe. It’s only a story, we say, and he’s just a character. Not me, so not me! And yet, if you have ever given a public reading of a difficult piece, you can actually feel the audience mapping your literary extremities onto you. As they lean forward, attention rapt, you know they are thinking, how could he? … how does he know? … but he never … or did he?
And it is this phenomenon that can sometimes spook the new writer, and even grizzled … um … seasoned veterans like me. You imagine your readers lifting your authorial mask to gawk at whomever is beneath. What will my mom think when she reads this? My kids? What if my boss buys this book? You begin to wonder: Is it really such a good idea to invite the world into your head to commune with your inner serial killer?
When I am being the best writer I can be, I always answer yes. Here’s some advice I offered several years ago in an essay about characterization:
You want to be liked and would much prefer to present your best side to the world. However, fiction is not public relations. We all have dark impulses which we’ve been taught to hide, perhaps even to deny; to be a writer you must unlearn some of the lessons of civilization. Nobody takes seriously a story in which the good guys are all saints and the bad guys are the spawn of hell. Saints can have their bad days and even monsters love their moms. Increasing the level of moral ambiguity usually enhances a character’s believability. Only psychopaths do wrong for the fun of it. Most of the evil in the world is perpetrated by people like you and me—the very people you want to characterize. Sometimes we do it out of malice; sometimes we’re merely selfish or lazy; often as not we think we’re doing the right thing. In any event, you have to be brave enough to portray your own ugliness in order to create memorable characters.
There’s a real difference between the mask you might be wearing to that Halloween party today and the one you will put on the next time you sit down at the keyboard. One of them you can remove. Go ahead and wash that garish zombie makeup off after the party. And then forget all about it. The other, though … it’s the glimpse you catch of yourself in a shattered mirror. It can cut you if you’re not careful. But you need to handle it if you’re going to be a writer.
That other mask is the scary one.
James Patrick Kelly has won science fiction’s Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards. His work has been translated into twenty-one languages and is available in print, audio and digital. His most recent book is DIGITAL RAPTURE, The Singularity Anthology (2012), co-edited with John Kessel. His website is www.jimkelly.net.