I read a book by Margaret Atwood called Negotiating With the Dead, that’s about writing, but not about how to write. It’s six essays about writers’ relationship with readers, and about how the act of writing connects one with the underworld, thus the title. After reading the book, I can’t tell if she means this literally.
The second essay is “Duplicity; the Jeckyll Hand, the Hyde Hand, and the Slippery Double.” It’s about alter-egos in literature, and the duality between a writer’s writer-self, who logs lonely hours at the laptop, and their everyday self, who does the dishes and rides the bus. I was inspired to write a post by this, because I am fascinated by my own duality, and not just as a writer.
First, alter-egos in myth and literature: There’s superhero secret identities, so an ordinary reader can fantasize about having a super-self. And the reverse, gods and heros disguised as ordinary mortals, to teach and to test us. Twins in legend and mythology. Dorian Gray and other good and bad doubles, including of course the title characters of her essay, Jeckyll and Hyde. I haven’t read the Stevenson classic, but I plan to now.
Second: the writer-self as extraordinary self. I’d say this has special meaning for Margaret Atwood, because she’s famous, and untold thousands have been exposed to her writing who will never meet her. But even for an unknown like myself, and Atwood makes this clear, my written output is certainly a different aspect of myself than how others experience me in everyday life.
This degree of division of the self is unique to writers. Traditional oral storytellers interact with their listeners, while the writer doesn’t see the reader, and may be long dead by the time their work is read. The degree of separation from the artist’s flesh-and-blood self is perhaps greater in writing than in any other medium.
When I decided to seriously write fiction at the age of thirty-two, my division into writer and non-writer self began. I say non-writer self rather than ordinary self because, not to be too pretentious but, I was not ordinary. I had already divided in two when I was fifteen, and already had an ordinary self and a dark self, ready to be heroic and even ruthless to set the world right. This division did not correspond to the writer and living person duality; both sides of my older split continue to manifest in my flesh life, and their struggle is evident in my fiction.
When I was fifteen, I heard secret messages in rock music. I lay naked in the woods and talked to spirits. Disgusted with school and part-time work, I imagined life beyond both the state and the company; I became an anarchist. I heard the message that this might be “a phase,” so to protect my new consciousness, I strove to put myself as far from normality as I could, so any future backsliding wouldn’t bring me all the way back to normal.
But the self I ran away from never went away. Friends, lovers, comrades—all can see Vulnerable Boy, who hides underneath Wingnut Steve—the madman, the shaman, the radical thinker, the wanderer.
Yet the effort into putting him behind me was not in vain. Most others who discover anarchy and chaos in their youth grow up and/or sell out, and the wild self persists as a shadow self. But which is my shadow self? For the others, family and morality represent the outer self, with creativity and lawlessness lurking within. Yet my wild self is still my primary identity, and ’tis the innocent Vulnerable Boy who hides in my shadows.
And just like these others, I have to absorb my other self to be whole and authentic.
Now, I think their story is more common in literature and media. Bilbo and Frodo transcend their pedestrian roots to become heroes. We watch from the view of the “good” Captain Kirk as he tries to reunite with the “bad” Kirk. In Hesse’s Demian, through Demian, Emil discovers inner truth through the morally ambiguous Abraxis. Inanna goes into the underworld to commune with Ereshkigal. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,Robert must unite with “Phaedrus,” the mad scholar. In our comic books, the emphasis is on the superhero’s adventure, but it’s Peter Parker who says “Gee, it’s weird to have this role;” the Spiderman mind more rarely sits and wonder about how odd it is to be an ordinary person sometimes.
In my opposite role, Wingnut Steve, the anarchist demon lord, contemplates his human self, rather than vice versa. I’d love to know the literary precedents.
In my novel which I hope I’ll publish soon, the protagonist Sara has an electronic alter-ego Sheel Aa, a gender-changing assassin in a fantasy world. I ask, who is Sara from Sheel Aa’s perspective? Sheel Aa is an imaginary person, neither flesh-and-blood nor artificial-intelligence. As he travels the fantasy world and plumbs the depths of a dungeon, he discovers authenticity in Sara, his secret self.
Likewise, despite my efforts, my journey away from home leads me home again. Recently, y mother passed away and father became ill with cancer, so I reconnected with my family of origin. As Wingnut Steve, I never envisioned a romantic relationship as more than glorified friends-with-benefits. But my paramours who shared this philosophy were driven away by clinging Vulnerable Boy, who was too deeply programmed to recreate his family of origin. But today, accepting and absorbing Vulnerable Boy, Wingnut Steve finally accepts the loss of isolation that comes with partnership. In his heart that is; his monkey mind still seeks fascination in a shallow individualism.
But Wingnut Steve is still in the driver’s seat. Whatever happens to Vulnerable Boy, Wingnut Steve is secure in his post-human identity, at home in whatever chaos may come. His transformation or destruction can only happen at his own choosing. Like Dorian Gray, who decides the moment to push the knife into his innocent portrait. Margaret Atwood describes Dorian’s act as an attempt to repent and regain innocence—she’s busted as a cliffnoter here, ’cause that’s the movie; in the book he acts from ennui. In the later case, Wingnut Steve can relate; Limbo will become ever lonelier if he doesn’t unite with Vulnerable Boy. In the former case, Wingnut Steve also relates but with terror—can he absorb Vulnerable Boy without discovering that his life has all been a big mistake since he cut loose three decades ago?
So the safety of remaining in the daemonic identity is temporary and illusory. Herman Hesse tells a story of a Satyr who strives to become a Christian, in “The Field Devil” from 1908 (read Stories From Five Decades). When all the old gods flee to the wasteland as Christianity takes over in the first centuries AD, this nature spirit tries to kiss ass to the Desert Fathers in Egypt. The superstitious monks shun him in horror. Left to die he achieved salvation in an existential way, but history leaves him behind.
Just as a man must know the secrets of the grandmothers to become an emperor, Wingnut Steve has to grasp Vulnerable Boy’s Catholic upbringing to make sense of the powers at play. Before it’s too late ands he’s another lost Satyr.
Margaret Atwood, at the end of her essay, claims that the writer-self and the ordinary-self are both present, and are one, at the moment of writing, when the pen hits the paper or the fingers hit the keys. I’ll end my essay by saying my two halves come together in writing similarly. I said earlier the innocent self and the radical self are a different duality; both are present in the writer-self and both in the ordinary-self. But in writing, it’s better when both the human and the monster come together on the paper. I’m not really published, but I get better feedback when both are present. If it’s just Wingnut Steve, people don’t see my writing as human enough. If it’s only Vulnerable Boy, I’m not saying anything new. Whether the beta reader knows or not, I know, and I am Wingnut Steve.
Yeah – I think I hide my quite immodest “writer-self” behind fiction and satire – maybe it deflects criticism?