Growing up, I was terrified of being in front of people—terrified of talking, period. I tended to look mortally wounded in photographs, and I walked like I was trying to scoot to the Flashlight Freeze Tag base without being spotted. But when I was twelve, for reasons I can no longer recall, I tried out for a community theater show. After that, I couldn’t get enough of being onstage. I ended up majoring in theatre in college. I think having all my lines written out for me really appealed to me. I liked the idea that I could say and feel and do things without it really being me. And my favorite part of any rehearsal process was always the day we got our costumes.
I still play dress up a lot. Doesn’t matter if it’s just wearing a hat around the house, or modeling my increasingly extensive collection of Victorian formalwear—I feel less self-conscious in costume. I think part of the allure is disguise. But I also think that in a way, the disguise makes me more me. It takes away my nerves and allows me to smile or walk or sit or move with more confidence than I normally would.
I see something similar at work in my writing. I don’t really write autobiographical fiction. It makes me feel way too exposed. And given that I already have to spend every moment of my life with me, the idea of spending my escape time with imaginary people who act like me has very little appeal. But every part of my life is potential fodder for my fiction. Every character borrows traits or experiences from me. I just have to dress it all up a bit.
Using my life as a foundation—buried in the ground, out of sight—what I build on top is a warped, often more chaotic version of the truth. I select and delete, I rearrange events, I divide my feelings among characters who will hopefully make something quite different of them than I do. And in doing so, I probably expose more of myself than I ever would writing a memoir or an autobiography. The disguise makes me feel safer, bolder. I’ll share way more if I think people can’t tell it’s me.
In college, I got to see Anne Lamott give a reading and a Q&A. Someone asked her if, when she bases her characters on real people, the real people ever get mad. Anne Lamott just kind of waved her hand and said if you change the person’s hair color or nose shape in the story, they won’t even recognize themselves when they read it.
That stuck with me. The disguise doesn’t have to be elaborate. It only has to be enough to let me feel like I’m getting away with something. Like I’ve anonymously submitted my darkest confession to PostSecret.com, or called into a radio advice show using a fake name. I want to be able to recognize myself in my work, not because I wrote a play by play of an event from my life, but because one of the joys of fiction is that it often allows us to see ourselves in characters who, on the surface, have little in common with us.
I like to scramble my world and have it still look familiar.
Give my social anxiety to a forty-eight year-old man who’s been asked to speak at his brother’s wedding. My hometown to two teenagers who are the world’s last best hope in the zombie apocalypse.
Put me in a corset and bloomers, or in army fatigues, or in a clown suit, and send me onstage.
It changes something.
It’s like only by thinking I’ve hidden the truth do I relax enough to tell it.