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.
Things social media is great for: There’s so much wonderful stuff happening in the world, just waiting to be discovered. Yippee!
Things social media is shite for: Everyone’s off having fun without me! Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I’ll go eat worms.
It was about life as an expat. The strange feeling of not-belonging that hits you when you return to your native soil. Which mirrors the feeling of not-belonging in the place that you live; the perpetual cycle of abandoning and being abandoned, as you or your friends move on to the next stop.
Monica has been living in Beijing for more than three years now, and was pondering her next move. She felt like it was “time to choose”: to either put down roots in Beijing, or return to Sydney. Or pick up to yet another place and make her life there? (The answer, of course, and somewhat selfishly, is that Monica’s next move should be wherever I am. Monica should be in the same city as me.)
Reading Monica’s article made me ask myself the same questions. Was it time to commit to London, to throw myself into it fully and without reservation? Or was it time to cut my losses and put the wheels in motion to move on to somewhere else, somewhere I might “fit” better?
It’s a silly question to ask, really – the ultimate in “first world” problems – but it’s been one that has preoccupied me ever since I left Australia two and a half years ago. And maybe it’s not so silly, after all. “Where should I live?” may be a question infused with privilege, but the emotion that lies beneath that question is common to us all. “Where do I belong?”
I’m conscious that when I write about London I often sound overly negative. Too inclined to focus on what’s missing from my life here – the ways that I feel awkward and out of place – rather than on the things I love about it: the friends I’ve made, the constant opportunities for adventure. (Next week I’ll be travelling to Berlin for the day, for a meeting associated with my volunteer job and a potential story. To another country! For a day! Who does that? Only a Londoner, I tells you. Or someone else who lives in Europe.) The truth is, I would be sad to leave.
But I am also prone to spending a lot of time thinking about not just what I want from my life here and now, but what kind of person I want to be in the future. “What kind of middle-aged person do I want to be?” (To which one of my friends responded, “But you’re not middle-aged, Rachel.” Which is true, but it’s never a bad time to start planning for the future.)
And the kind of middle-aged person I want to be is kind of like Nora Ephron as depicted in this New York Magazine article: working on interesting projects, meeting great people, surrounded by friends and mentors and mentees and collaborators. Can I be that person in London? Possibly, but I definitely don’t feel like I am her now. I feel like it would be a hard slog. And I’m not even talking about the career bit (which of course would be hard). I’m talking about the social life.
But here’s the funny – and perhaps not so surprising – thing. It is infinitely easier to be happier with where and who you are, if you stop evaluating what “is” against your final destination.
When you (I) stop feeling embarrassed that your career is based primarily out of Australia and the United States, even though you live in the UK. When you stop fretting about where your creative community is (across the Atlantic, you fear?), and throw yourself into your immediate future: the events you want to go to this week, the people you’d like to meet this month, and the places you’d like to visit and the projects you’d like to pursue this year.
As they say in Avenue Q, everything in life is only for now.
So, January’s done, and I didn’t exactly stick to my monthly resolution (do an hour minimum “hard writing” every day), but I did make some serious progress towards my end goal, and that’s what counts, right?
I also wrote some sweet freelance stories, and dreamed up a post-book project that has me more excited about writing than I’ve been in years. And I’ve found the planning I did when I was back in Australia over the holidays really helpful in deciding which work to pursue and where to send it. My mental dance card is now pretty much full until I submit the book at the end of March, with story ideas, speeches, and of course, lots and lots of book writing and editing.
Inspired by Sarah Von of Yes and Yes (who is launching her 9 Days of Nice challenge today), I’m making my resolution for February “small acts of kindness.” Which is not to say I’m usually a raving bitch, but let’s face it: holding back on the negativity and bringing light into the lives of others is something most of us could stand to improve on. And it’s a nice distraction from the very self-absorbed state of writing a book.
Other forthcoming monthly themes may include:
Body is a temple.
Live it like it’s Pinterest.
Blog like nobody’s watching.
Crash the comfort zone.
Experiment with aesthetics.
Thirty days of yoga.
And more that I haven’t dreamed up yet. Suggestions welcome.
Elsewhere: Let’s be nice for 9 days. Um, starting Monday. (Yes and Yes)