Great Writers Reflect on the Divide Between Private Person and Public Persona in Hand-Drawn Self-Portraits
By Maria Popova
“It is to my other self, to Borges, that things happen… I live, I agree to go on living, so that Borges may fashion his literature,” Jorge Luis Borges wrote in his famous essay “Borges and I,” eloquently exploring our shared human tendency to disintegrate into multiple personas as our public and private selves slip in and out of different worlds. In 1996, Daniel Halpern asked 56 of our era’s most celebrated writers to reflect on Borges’s memorable meditation and contribute their own thoughts on the relationship between the person writing and the fictional persona of the writer. The resulting short essays, alongside hand-drawn self-portraits from each author — a recurring theme today — are gathered in Who’s Writing This?: Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits (public library), a priceless addition to this omnibus of famous writers’ timeless wisdom on the craft.
Selves will accumulate when one isn’t looking, and they don’t always act wisely or well.
True to her essay’s title, “Diane Ackerman and I,” she playfully turns to the third person to further explore how this notion played out in her own life, while touching on a great many human universalities:
It was only in her middle years that she began to notice how her selves had been forming layer upon layer, translucent like skin; and, like skin, they were evolving a certain identifiable “fingerprint” — a weather system of highs and lows, loops and whirls.
Older, what she craved was to be ten or twelve selves, each passionately committed to a different field — a dancer, a carpenter, a composer, an astronaut, a miner, etc. Some would be male, some female, and all of their sensations would feed back to one central source. Surely then she would begin to understand the huge spill of life, if she could perceive it from different view points, through simultaneous lives.
She thinks a lot about the pageant of being human — what it senses, loves, suffers, thrills like — while working silently in a small room, filling blank sheets of paper. It is a solitary mania. But there are times when, all alone, she could be arrested for unlawful assembly.
Mark Helprin echoes the same sentiment:
When the Queen of England speaks in the first person plural, it sounds marvelously schizoid, and probably is for her a deep embarrassment. When an American politician has gone around the bend, he begins to refer to himself in the third person. All people feel that they are more than one. Even an Eskimo who returns from the ice to sit in the shadows inside an igloo must sometimes ask himself what the hunt has done to him, must wonder why his tenderness with his children takes so long to flood back after his sinews have been bent and frozen hard in the chase. It happens to everyone and to all of us, and only the crazed and the privileged permit themselves the luxury of disintegration into more than one self.
And yet he has mastered that private integration that keeps his own multiple selves together:
However many of me there are, I have managed to fuse them into one. I cannot tell myself apart any more than the heavily breathing fox hiding under branches or in brush perceives in the mirror of his wide and alert eye a new dainty self or a different sad self or an admirably reflective self.
In an essay titled “Me, She, and It,” Margaret Atwood — a woman of strong opinions about the problems of literature and its how-to’s — pokes at the common, flawed trope of the writerly persona as a separate, superior entity to the writer’s person:
Why do authors wish to pretend they don’t exist? It’s a way of skinning out, of avoiding truth and consequences. They’d like to deny the crime, although their fingerprints are allover the martini glasses, not to mention the hacksaw blade and the victim’s neck. Amnesia, they plead. Epilepsy. Sugar overdose. Demonic possession. How convenient to have an authorial twin, living in your body, looking out through your eyes, pushing pen down on paper or key down on keyboard, while you do what? File your nails?
Noting her own embodiment of this dichotomy, she admonishes:
A projection, a mass hallucination, a neurological disorder — call her what you will, but don’t confuse her with me.
Paul Bowles shares a similar sentiment in his essay titled “Bowles and It”:
What is this curious assumption, widely shared … that while writing, a writer can identify himself as one who is writing? The consciousness of oneself as oneself causes a short circuit, and the light goes out.
If I am writing fiction, I am being invented. I cannot retain any awareness of identity. The two states of being are antithetical. The author is not at a steering wheel: “I am driving this car. I command its movements. I can make it go wherever I please.” This assertion of identity is fatal; the writing at that point becomes meaningless.
Frank Bidart bleeds into the existential:
We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them we change them and are changed.
He considers fiction as the mechanism of this perpetuum mobile of self-transformation:
Sweet fiction, in which bravado and despair beckon from a cold panache, in which the protected essential self suffers flashes of its existence to be immortalized by a writing self that is incapable of performing its actions without mixing our essence with what is false.
In a short essay titled “Path,” Paula Fox rebels against this meta-awareness of the writer’s writing:
I cannot write of writing. To be at work, to write, must exclude thoughts about writing or about myself as a writer. To consider writing, to look at myself as a writer, holds for one sober moment, then plunges me into a tangle of misery that Cesare Pavese describes in his diary: “This terrible feeling that what you do is all wrong, so is what you think, what you are!”
It all suggests to me Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle, which states that you can either know where a thing is or how fast it is moving — but not both simultaneously. The warring self disappears into the self-less concentration of work. Imagination is conjunctive and unifying; the sour, habitual wars of the self are disjunctive and separating.
When I begin a story at my desk, the window to my back, the path is not there. As I start to walk, I make the path.
Exploring his own inner duality, Ward Just indulges a play on his name:
The Just and the unJust inhabiting the same body, so close you can’t pry us apart, but we are not friends. He speaks, I edit. He plays, I work. He is famously convivial, I am a recluse. And at the end of the evening, when I’m exhausted and yearning for bed, knowing there’s an assignment to complete, he stays on, anything to keep me in the closet a little longer. And when the inevitable question comes, he answers it with aplomb, holding his glass —
Don’t mind if I do.
Allan Gurganus, in an essay titled “The Fertile ‘We’ of One Chaste ‘I,'” considers the “inward, unsure, tender, professional empathizer” of the writer’s private self, in such stark contrast with his carefully constructed public persona:
What interests me about my own work and character is not the solid, admirable, good-nurse, self-motivated persona that I simulate toward Frans Hals warmth in scholarly talks, in photographs taken during charity banquets. That guy is about as real as his tweed jacket’s suede elbow patches and about that necessary. It’s Lint Man I’m a slave for. Poor dweeb hasn’t had a date since 1965; and hasn’t regretted that since January 1972.
He, the true writer, is the department store dummy at the very center of the whole establishment, the one left alone on display all night, a price tag stapled to every piece of clothing they’ve yanked onto him, binoculars and frog flippers included. He is the neutral, generic human form, the gray center who must always assume disguises — in order to be seen and, therefore, to feel himself.
And yet it’s “Lint Man” Gurganus relishes:
How lavish and how Godlike is Lint Man’s open-endedness. Lint Man’s specificity.
He ends on a somewhat solemn note:
The chances of achieving literary performance are, to the decimal point, the odds against becoming fully human.
That means one hundred and fifty million to one.
Which means one hundred and fifty million in one.
Children’s book author and New Yorker cover artist Ed Koren offers his contribution in the medium of his forte:
Francine Prose, who has taught us how to read like a writer, considers how to write like a writer in a meditation titled “She and I … and Someone Else”:
She never seems happier than when she is writing, when the work takes over, and the book (as she puts it, so unoriginally) seems to write itself. The characters are saying and doing things she hadn’t planned at all. What pleases her is that she isn’t there, she no longer feels herself present, and I…
Someone else is writing, and both she and I have vanished.
John Hawkes writes:
Some time ago I discovered that I could no longer speak aloud or read aloud from a stage, even for the sake of hearing the effect that my writer’s voice produced on listeners. Now, curiously, the more I merely try to live, the more reclusive I become, the vainer I am. At last I am as vain as the one who instantly voices his silence inside me.
Arthur Miller considers the disconnect between the writer-person and the byline-persona:
I know Arthur Miller, but not “Arthur Miller” or Arthur Miller or “Miller.” About twenty-five years ago the Romanian government banned all “Miller” plays as pornographic. Privately I was very pleased, having admired Henry Miller’s work for a long time. Two theaters were in the midst of producing plays of mine and were forced to cancel them. Did this make me — slightly — Henry Miller? Or him — slightly — Arthur Miller?
A book, a poem, a play — they start as fantasms but they end up as things, like a box of crackers or an automobile tire.
Edna O’Brien offers a refreshing, poetic take on the old artist-muse relationship:
The other me, who did not mean to drown herself, went under the sea and remained there for a long time. Eventually she surfaced near Japan and people gave her gifts but she had been so long under the sea she did not recognize what they were. She is a sly one. Mostly at night we commune. Night. Harbinger of dream and nightmare and bearer of omens which defy the music of words. In the morning the fear of her going is very real and very alarming. It can make one tremble. Not that she cares. She is the muse. I am the messenger.
John Updike, writing a decade before his death — a subject whose relationship with writing he once explored with such poignancy — considers the dissociation between the constructed Writer and the living person a sort of useful psychological buffer:
I created Updike out of the sticks and mud of my Pennsylvania boyhood, so I can scarcely resent it when people, mistaking me for him, stop me on the street and ask me for his autograph. I am always surprised that I resemble him so closely that we can be confused.
The distance between us is so great that the bad reviews he receives do not touch me, though I treasure his few prizes and mount them on the walls and shelves of my house, where they instantly yellow and tarnish.
Suppose, some day, he fails to show up? I would attempt to do his work, but no one would be fooled.
Though Who’s Writing This?: Notations on the Authorial I with Self-Portraits is, regrettably, out of print, used copies can — and should — be tracked down for guaranteed enjoyment. Complement it with an entirely different kind of self-portrait.
Published November 8, 2013