I always love reading Rachel Rabbit White’s love letters to her friends. It’s for the same reason I gobble up Natalie Joos’s Tales of Endearment, which I read not for the fashion, but for the intimate portraits she paints through her photography and writing.
It’s something I’d love to do myself. I’m always telling one of my most fascinating friends that she had better hurry up and get famous so that I can write her biography. And I sometimes daydream about starting a site like Joos’s; again, not focused on fashion, but about capturing the people I meet in all their beauty and complexity.
Rachel’s most recent love letter centred around a night at a vampire ball with Gala Darling. It also talked a lot about persona: both in the context of teenage (and post-teenage?) gothdom, and on the internet. She writes:
The internet channels Persona. “Who are you?” ask social networking sites. You are defined in 140 characters. You are what you share. At 22 I wanted to write but I was not yet writing. But I was filling out ‘about me’ sections. I was a character in some imaginary film. I was the protagonist of my own life. A muse, I thought, to my future self. Sure that I would remember it all. Sure I would write about it someday.
Around the same time Gala was just starting to write, to blog. And she was taking off. In her ‘about me’ section she wrote that she was an international playgirl and thus; instantly became one. She was figuring ways to fuse Persona with her work. She garnered success and fandom from the girls and queer boys who understand creating a self. Who know that it is worthy; a way to be creative.
“I want a persona,” I thought to myself.
I’m often conscious of the image I project online; not to the extent that I bother doing anything to change it, but at least to the point that I’m aware that it’s not the most positive image I could be projecting.
I know that if I wanted to, I could present my life as utterly aspirational: tri-continental career, book deal, international travel, etc etc. And sometimes I do write about the good things that happen in my life. But on the screen, it never seems as rich or enticing as the complicated, ambiguous bits. What can I tell you about my whirlwind trip to Berlin? We saw some things; they were pretty. I both love and find it ridiculous that I live in a country that allows me to travel to another country for a day. Also, a German public transport officer was mean to us.
By comparison, the emotional and intellectual sides of my life, ever imperfect, feel rich for the plumbing.
I didn’t always feel this way. I remember chatting with a friend over MSN shortly before my twentieth birthday, telling him of my plans to reinvent myself. I would turn myself into the ultimate creative project, I told him, “improving” my appearance and personality until (and I don’t think I ever said this bit out loud, but it was certainly my intent) I was “so good that no one would ever know I was bad.”
The models for my reinvention were the bubbly blonde heroines of 1990s and 2000s popular culture. Cher from Clueless. Buffy, when I was feeling dark (which I often way). Tracy Flick – not because any sane-minded person would actually want to be her, but because she typified the steely resolve that was required to reach this point of “perfection.” Britney’s “Lucky” came up a lot.
She’s so lucky, she’s a star, but she cry cry cries in her lonely heart.
(This may sound like a miserable persona to take on, but I believe the point was that it was permissible to be miserable on the inside if you appeared flawless on the outside.)
Even then, I wasn’t particularly good at it. I had the hair, the heels, the penchant for pink – one time, in the early days of Google, I stumbled across someone who described me as one of the “pretty, pink prom queens of the world,” and took it as a compliment - but the insecurities would always find their way through.
A few years later and less insecure, I recall sitting across from a friend at lunch, telling him I didn’t think he was half as a nerdy and awkward as he pretended he was. “That’s just your schtick,” I announced.
“What’s schtick?” he asked.
“Schtick is like the automatic persona you put on to the world to avoid having to engage with it in a real and vulnerable way,” I said. “It’s part of you, but it’s not the whole you.”
“What’s your schtick?”
“My schtick is the Nicest, Most Funnest Girl Ever,” I said. And he agreed.
In other words, my “schtick” was a Magic Pixie Dream Girl.
These days, I’m not sure I have any persona left at all.
I put this down to the fact that I spend the majority of my time with someone who knows me so well that there would be no point in putting one on. But I don’t think I do it for other people either. There are still hints of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, of the warrior Buffy, and of the crumbling Lucky, but they are no longer roles I play. Only parts of a bigger whole.
Sometimes I curse myself for this; usually after I’ve had people over for dinner and a few glasses of wine. “Damnit, Rachel,” I think. “You were authentic again.” Which in the everyday rather than online sense (although is offline really the “everyday” now?) normally means being too loud, too silly, possibly too much, depending of the behaviour preferences of the company I am in.
I don’t say any of this to sound superior. Like I said, this post was prompted by the wish that I did have a persona: a larger, more magical me that I could project into the world. It sounds like it would be fun. Persona, after all, isn’t just artifice. It’s a creative act; part of the process by which we figure out who we are and eventually grow into that person.
Then again, the friend I mentioned back at the beginning of this post, the one whose biography I want to write some day? I’m pretty sure she is entirely “schtick-less.” And funnily enough, it is that almost complete lack of persona that makes her so utterly fascinating to me; that makes her not only a pleasure to be around, but that makes her such a rich “character.”
She cannot help but be anything but herself.