Private faces in public places
Are wiser and nicer
Than public faces in private places
I dislike the sound of the title already. Does it make me sound unappealing to the core? Have I become a Creative Writing cliché? I ask myself these questions for I live in an era of extreme self-awareness. The birth of the selfie, the Tinder pandemic, and the superficial allure of counterculture all lead me to realise that today’s society cares so much about the surface. Our stock stereotypes rely on the assumption that our physical appearance represents our internal ideal; businesswomen wear cruel heels and suits because they are sharp, serious, and driven, whereas artists wear smocks and spectacles because they are a diverse band of individuals (ahem). People use their exterior as a way of expressing their interior, but only the interior they desire everybody else to see. I used to find comfort in the idea that words could be free from this culture of shallow scrutiny, as they require a semantic understanding before they can be judged, and had hoped they would therefore survive as the most honest portrait of life.
Unfortunately, however, I now realise even the sanctity of writing is not immune to social pressure.
Under usual essay circumstances, I would proceed to provide plentiful, apt examples of such judgement, but in this instance, I find I am unable to continue. I’m too busy panicking this all sounds like a confessional article in The Guardian Comment. I’m panicking because someone else has just pushed open the door to my secret writing bunker and they are probably thinking the same. They’ve come into the room, glanced at this open document, settled down in the corner, and are now scratching notes in their ring bound pad. What are they marking down, do they speak my language, and are they smiling? I’m trying to keep my eyes ahead and concentrate on writing this sentence, but can feel their tingling eyes on my neck and I can’t concentrate. If only I knew who they were, then I could know what they want. I can’t ignore the mystery any longer, so I turn round to face them head on.
The intruder is you.
The fourth wall is in rubble. A hectic draught is coming in through the gaping hole, spilling my sheets of typed-up paper everywhere. I was having a hard enough time deciding which stereotype I wanted for myself, but now I realise it’s actually not up to me. Your reading this and your making judgements. Your judging my choice of words, my choice of style, the fact that I spelled ‘you’re’ incorrectly three times, and there isn’t anything I can do now, post-publication, to change it. The snug cube of unseen writing has been violently unfolded by your arrival, and I find myself sitting on the base tile of its net, frozen by the impossible task of pleasing you (see fig.1).
How is anybody expected to be satisfied with what they write under these conditions? Overthought can be lethal, as symptoms of paranoia and rapid readjustment are silent killers to both style and enjoyment. Sufferers are further inclined to abruptly switch to mismatched voices, attempting to please everyone simultaneously…
Right now I am undergoing this transformational experience. By backspacing, by pausing, I am choosing which thoughts to put into words, and then choosing which words to put on the page. I’ve set up my own parameters and my own guidelines, and I know I need to obey them if I want to write a successful essay. As decreed by me, chief ruler of the section, alternate parts are supposed to be more light-hearted and fluid, so I’m choosing to write from an approachable 1st person perspective. I know that I know this. I also know that I know that I know this. The continual chain of metacognition reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ essay Surprised by Joy, the title taken from Wordsworth’s poem about identifying and thus halting his own emotions. Lewis writes:
The enjoyment and the contemplation of our inner activities are incompatible. You cannot hope and also think about hoping at the same moment… In introspection we try to look “inside ourselves” and see what is going on. But nearly everything that was going on a moment before is stopped by the very act of our turning to look at it.
How kind of him to summarise precisely what I’m getting at. At this very second, I am so aware of what I am writing to the extent that I am no longer really writing expressively at all. Instead, I am composing sentences that fit the criteria (merciless hilarity, supreme quantities of wisdom etc) to help me convey my points whilst also maintaining an identifiable style. As Lewis points out, I’ve stopped thinking in order to think about my thinking, and that’s the point at which it gets so complicated that I end up writing sentences like this one. I am so aware of my own expectations and desires from this section that I am unable to write at ease, or indeed naturally, as my mind catches up with my hand and analyses the words before they’ve even been written down. Somebody somewhere (most likely you, the intruder who owes me my sanctuary and my sanity) may try and suggest Breton’s cure of automatic writing, however I don’t see a solution in that. Very few people would be able to cope with the unedited unpacking of my mind’s clutter, so the act of automatism for me negates the acknowledgement and presence of a future reader in the present writer’s mind. Whoops, that was a little too articulate for this section. Perhaps I should go back and edit…
Polly Gregson is currently studying for an MA in Critical Writing at the Royal College of Art. Her writing, illustration and self are all traced with salt-rings, left behind by evaporated Cornish waters. More of her work can be found at http://criticalwriting.rca.ac.uk/author/polly-gregsonrca-ac-uk/ and she can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.