I don’t know why I wrote that title other than it’s a haiku by Basho and mentions masks. Really, monkeys have nothing to do with it. But ever since I thought of the haiku I can’t stop thinking about monkeys.
Now, I was going somewhere with this. Masks.
Yes, we hide behind masks. And this has a lot to do with writing. Because as writers, we hide behind computers or notebooks all day and we hide what we’re writing until we find it’s an appropriate time to show other people our work. And also, as writers, skilled in the art of storytelling, learn to mask our stories so that people aren’t aware that they’re reading a story with characters and a plot. We use good grammar and spelling, fluent prose so that they can read without tweaking on the fact that what they’re reading was made up. So, masks are very important.
Now, I think at this point I’ll talk about an example. And naturally, had I just gone ahead with the example, and not stated that it was an example, you wouldn’t have thought of it as such, or as obviously as you are now. Which I’ll talk about later, playing around with the awareness of the reader. So, example. Book. New. I recently read Rico Slade Will Fucking Kill You, by Bradley Sands, which I should note is up for free download until the end of the month (just a few more days) from Bizarro Central, along with Cameron Pierce’s book of three novellas, Abortion Arcade. I mention Rico Slade because it tells its story in a very interesting way, and it wasn’t until I finished the book that I started really thinking about it.
The book is about an action hero, Rico Slade. He rips out throats and does wicked backflips and nu-metal plays in the background through all of this. When the cameras aren’t on him, he’s Chip Johnson, the large bald guy that kind of looks like Rico, but not really. The story involves Chip going through a psychological breakdown and believing he is Rico Slade, on a mission to defeat Baron Mayhem, in as badass a way as possible. Flashing between the real world and the film world that’s playing out in Chip’s head, we see everything. His destructive awesomeness, and the pathetic adult running around like a child suck in a fantasy with a fanny-pack strapped to his head. It’s clever and entertaining, and Chip is so absorbed in Rico’s world, he doesn’t know what he’s actually doing except for brief flashes of “what the fuck?” moments. The book is ridiculously over-the-top, and at points (his therapist goes through his own psychotic episode, trying to keep his marriage together) even reality seems too far-fetched. But we’re reminded through the African American Golfer character (who is a token-black-guy-but-not-a-token-black-guy) that we’re not dealing with stereotypes, but with real people. But we’re not dealing with real people either, we’re dealing with characters. They just feel real when we’re reading them. So I was reading it and thinking “damn this is so ridiculous” but it was entertaining, so I was going along with it. And when I finished it last night, I was wondering what was the point of all that. And I felt that, as ridiculous as it was, I was reading a story about characters with depth. I cared about Chip Johnson. I cared about George and Harold. I felt sad for them.
I don’t think I could have got all that from the story if I didn’t get drawn into it by the plot, if I weren’t entertained. The writing is very sharp and punchy, much more to the point than your conventional writing style, which adds to the humour and the entertainment factor of the book. Some people may find it disorienting or difficult to grasp on to. It’s certainly not as elegant as your run of the mill prose, but then again, it’s bizarro, it’s written to appeal to alternative audiences.
My role as a writer, and as a writer who reads (as we all are) is to learn to see the masks other writers use to hide the mechanics of their own work. What they do and why. I mean, I can’t go around saying “Bradley Sands created this character to cause a conflict with that character and result in a character development in both characters in a particular direction.” What I can do is look at the characterisation and the plot and the narration and the setting and come up with reasons why I think they fit my understanding of the story. What they do to mask my reading experience, what they do to develop the story in a particular direction, what they do differently or similarly to other books. A good place to start would be to look at the chapters that view the action from Rico Slade’s point of view, which is Chip Johnson’s unstable mind. Why do things like that? Why include the African American golfer? Why put these details into the story.
It’s my job as a writer to be able to look at these things and come up with answers, to pick up techniques and tricks that work and some that don’t work, to take them to my own writing and figure out how it can benefit me. That’s why I try to read as much as I can. The more I read, the more techniques I pick up and the more I figure out my own techniques, figure out a style which best works for me, and I run with that. I can’t read books the same way as I used to since I started really getting into creative writing, although it’s not exactly a bad thing, it’s spoiled my taste for a lot of popular, generic writing. Oh well.
Now, to get into the tricky shit:
Most of the time, English teachers and creative writing teachers and such will say that you should use good grammar and spelling and have flowing sentences and a plot that makes sense so that you can create this masking effect on your writing. It’s easier for readers to suspend disbelief when reading about a terminally ill cancer patient as opposed to a story about a kid who gets attacked by flying sharks while walking down to the shops. However, sometimes, if you want to make a particular point about something you’ve done differently, as in, you know what you’ve done and why, you can draw attention towards that, and remove your mask, so to speak, so that more people can see that you’re attempting to do something other than tell a straight up conventional story.
If I say, “don’t think about monkeys,” there’s a good chance you’ll be thinking about monkeys.
If I say, “you are now breathing manually,” you will become much more aware of your breathing pattern, which has been automatic up until this point.
But why do this?
Well, if you make your reader aware of their participation in the reading process, it becomes almost like a game between you and the reader. It could be that their deeper level of involvement in your story allows you to turn the story into a puzzle of sorts, to challenge the reader about questioning why you have done the things you have. It makes the reader, on a wider level, to engage with your writing on a more critical level during the reading process. Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes not. Sometimes it has a point, sometimes not. But then you’ve got to think about what you’re revealing and what you’re keeping hidden. Are you telling a story or are you just playing a game with the reader, or maybe a bit of both? It’s sort of like blurring the line between what are the rules and what aren’t the rules. As a writer, you’ve got to figure that out, know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it and what might be the result of doing it this way.
Just something to think about.