I have found that I can be a bit of a shapeshifter. Not like a werewolf, but a shifter of personality depending on the people I am around. Like an actor, or a party-goer with many different masks, I can change. Sometimes it is evident in the things I say, or don’t say. Sometimes the things I do. Sometimes the things I write.
Have you ever been around old high school or college friends, and suddenly you realize you are acting and talking like you did then?
I read a book called Scary Close not long ago about building more intimate relationships with others. It was largely focused on romantic relationships, but it also delved into friendships too. The author, Don Miller, talked about discovering the sort of “writer person” persona he developed out of a desire to be liked. In social settings he would jump at the chance to tell someone what he did for a living, because it would make people find him more interesting. This mentality of people-pleasing also affected his writing, and after writing a successful memoir, he began to write what his audience would generally expect and like. He played it safe basically and didn’t take risks, and also didn’t convey his true thoughts or full thoughts oftentimes.
I find myself doing things like this. Wanting to be the person the people around will like. Keeping silent when I disagree with someone about religion or politics, because I want them to like me. (And also because people who talk about religion or politics generally aren’t looking for open discussion, but are looking for affirmation from people who already agree with them.)
I’ve been wondering a bit about how much this affects my daily life, the things I write, my relationships. This people-pleasing thing is really rooted in fear, I think. Fear of what people will think of me if I don’t comply to their opinions or standards.
But you can’t get very close to other people if you simply put on a them-like mask for a bit, or if you please everyone. You might have fewer disagreements or “discussions” but not authentic friendships. Perhaps this is why so many relationships are so superficial.
For those who write, putting on masks can affect the authenticity of the work. We live in a weird conundrum where we create things that will then be read and either appreciated or despised by the audience.
I find myself wondering how different people will react to something I write, whether people I know or potential agents or publishers or readers. Sometimes, I have made changes based on these wonderings, rather than staying entirely true to the story I was telling. I think a lot of writers do, whether it is trying to please a certain audience or hit a publishing trend or wondering how that mega-conservative aunt might react to your LGBT character.
For me, I am trying to be true to the story and true to myself more, in life and in writing. I think authenticity always rings true, and people gravitate towards that. Don’t be afraid to buck the trend or defy the genre or unsettle that aunt. In some ways, I suppose we must consider the audience and the genre. But don’t let it hold you or your writing back. Write the stories you want to write. Be the person you truly are. Whoever doesn’t like it, can just keep walking.