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Question of the Week: Masks

by Susan Henderson on February 18, 2008

What do you hope people will believe about you that couldn’t be further from the truth?

*

Wednesday’s guest is going to appear a little later than usual because I’m coordinating my show with McSweeney’s. Sometime Wednesday morning, one of their regular feature writers, also a friend of mine, will reveal his true identity over there, while here at LitPark, that friend and I will talk about the mask he’s been wearing.

Now, for those of you who would like to win some money and some attention from a top-notch lit mag editor, there will also be a contest, so be sure to stop by!

*

Some quick shout-outs to the lovely folks I met Saturday at The Bowery Poetry Club:

Kim Brittingham, who read her sassy, poignant, and seriously funny essay called Fat is Contagious. She will be talking about this essay Wednesday on The Today Show – they even followed her around with hidden cameras! So if any of you know how to turn your TVs on and can send a link (particularly a legal one that doesn’t hurt our poor Hollywood writers who have been through so much), I’ll be happy to post what you’ve got. (If you don’t have my email, and you shouldn’t – it’s only for my mom and my agent, mostly – then you can send that link directly to my webmaster, Terry Bain, who is much friendlier about receiving email.)

Heather Maidat, who told me, after I read, that I closed a certain chapter in her life, and the conversation we had about that meant a whole lot to me.

Shoaleh Teymour, who is so absolutely sweet and wipes tears away when she talks.

Lisa Haas, who not only made us all feel comfortable and welcome, but is also the director of Creative Evolution, which supports women with works-in-progress in literature, and I think, film.

Oh, and I was also so happy to finally meet Rachel Kramer Bussel, and I want to apologize to her for hugging her so much except for she’s so awfully cute!

Okay, everyone, see you Wednesday!

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Sbain February 18, 2008 at 12:29 am

Good lord. Sometimes it’s an advantage to be on the West Coast to read the question of the week at 9 p.m. and other times, well, it’s not. I’m going to hide behind my mask and hear what others have to say about this question. It’s one thing to drive in the night without your defogger on. It’s quite another to remove your mask! I will think, wait, and listen.

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Kimberly February 18, 2008 at 7:12 am

Hair color. :-)

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Nathalie February 18, 2008 at 7:57 am

Apparently i come accross as a self assured person, which always astonish me.
Nothing could be further from the truth, as I am riddled with doubts.

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SusanHenderson February 18, 2008 at 7:59 am

Ooh, did I stump you guys? Might have to dig deep to answer this one.

Couple of announcements and then I’m unplugging for the day:

You may remember my interview with Pierre Berg, my friend who gave his first-ever interview at age 83. Well, guess what? If you follow this link, you can find out more about his memoir that will be published this fall: http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendID=88027086&blogID=358981887&indicate=1 You can also also find his link to the right and read his LitPark interview about his time in Auschwitz.

David Niall Wilson also has some good news: His collection, DEFINING MOMENTS, his story, THE GENTLE BRUSH OF WINGS, and the website Storytellers Unplugged ALL made the final ballot for The Bram Stoker Awards! Here’s more info about the award: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bram_Stoker_Award

And if you want a guaranteed life-changing writers workshop, Bruce Bauman (And the Word Was) and Janet Fitch (White Oleander) are teaching the retreat at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in June. You can read more or sign up here: http://www.vcca.com/bauman.html

Okay, unplugging. If I owe you mail it’s because I’m over a month behind. I will get to it within the week, promise!

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Betsy February 18, 2008 at 8:43 am

That I’m perfect?

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Aurelio February 18, 2008 at 9:48 am

That I have a “gift” for writing and it all flows naturally and effortlessly out of me. I want to be the perfectly plump, savory sausage of a writer that no one stops to think about what went into me.

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Aurelio February 18, 2008 at 9:50 am

Yeah, about that mail… I was beginning to wonder if I’ve been spammed out of your mailbox.

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aimeepalooza February 18, 2008 at 9:56 am

I have a few masks. One is that I am a fly by the seat of my pants Mom. I am unconventional but I am always thinking about what I want to give my children. I plan everything, even though the things I plan are different from the suburban and rural Moms around me. We are not a cub scouting family…we are more a volunteer for a political campaign family.
Also, people see me as very confident. That’s because I don’t care about being perfect or pretty. However, when it comes to my ability, I lack any confidence. I don’t feel that I am or ever will be really good at anything. (And that is not a request to feed my ego…just the truth.)

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass February 18, 2008 at 10:01 am

That I am hip, when in fact I am so pedestrian I give myself blisters.

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tracer February 18, 2008 at 10:55 am

I have a complex and sophisticated understanding of politics, literature and art. In reality, I’m thinking, that guy sucks, that book makes me swoon and that painting makes me want to lick it.

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Gail Siegel February 18, 2008 at 11:10 am

That I look taller than 5 foot 1 and 1/2 inches. And that I’m a competent parent.

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Heather_Fowler February 18, 2008 at 11:24 am

“What do you hope people will believe about you that couldn’t be further from the truth?”

I think it’s the construction “hope people will believe about you” that causes the unrest in the answers… Because at a certain level, what we display becomes what is “ourself” in our mind0–but I was thinking on the question of damage this morning, how many writers write their way out or through from this damage they experience and I realized: I hope that others will believe that I am exposing my damage to help them deal with their own or find safety voices, like those I find and admire in literature–voices that inspire to be and to create–AND, oddly, I am at once hoping they will see the damage or the perspective of the characters I create and not necessarily bring it to my doorstep or make me accountable for it by way of explanation because perhaps I want others to explain me to myself. But then, I think about what causes the impulse, for me, to write–and, for a large part, it is to right the wrongs I cannot right in life. For anyone I may come into contact with. It’s personal and it’s public. It is for me, or it is for friends. So, the long and the short of it is this: perhaps I want others to view me as conquering damage or having a positivity that inspires, but the truth is: We write to inspire when we still need inspiration. We seek to soothe our own demons. I simply hope that by working through mine in a veiled place or different layer (fictional, autobiographical concealed as surreal, fabulist, etc) I am heard and understood– as well as the duality layer of simultaneously providing a vehicle for others to say what they fear saying, or re-engage their pain and alter it in fictive translation perhaps. As I was saying on my blog this morning, since the conversation had spun towards sex-trades, women’s roles, and other related issues (in combo with the role of magical realism or fantasy as subversion point):

I was reading yesterday a piece of Rosemary Jackson’s Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion and there was this wonderful idea quoted from Levy: “The fantastic is a compensation that man provides for himself, at the level of imagination [l’imaginaire], for what he has lost at the level of faith.”

Also, she quotes Bataille, “Those arts which sustain anguish and the recovery from anguish within us, are the heirs of religion.”

Anyway, thinking of this, I wrote a sonnet for a friend:

The Fabulist’s Sonnet, The Recovery Of Damage

To save itself, the butterfly takes flight
with wings renewed aft cruelty’s harsh touch,
for flutter, flutter, flutter is the fight
against which, love regains what loss has clutched.

But none can work to find such love alone
A butterfly must trust her aiding friends
replenishment of was robbed or known —
to borrow powders gentle meeting lends

To re-create with magic her new sky–
restoring wellness to an earthbound flaw,
to redefine her wings with gilt and fly–
to future self-protection, viewed with awe.

A fabulist will give back that which stings;
subverting those who steal a flight dust’s wings.

So, yes, what I want people to believe is that I write to inspire or heal them, or that I write to inspire or heal myself–but such simplicity is to tie up an idea that is increasingly vast with a large band-aid and a piece of medical tape. There are many reasons I write each thing I write. Still, perhaps to apply a distilled sentiment or meaning can work. Though oddly, at other times, one or another of these motivations is primary, or there is a motivation that I don’t always know, one that stems from complete bafflement.

How do you create a known from an unknown? Make reason or rhyme from mayhem? Accomodate mayhem? Personalize or not personalize an urge?

Perhaps, truly, truly, I write only because I cannot not write. Any will I may bring to it about the “why” or whatnot, may be an afterflourish of a compulsive need to ask questions and watch and learn. Perhaps I want to people to think I am adept at portraying or understanding human motivations–but am really writing to feel much less at sea. If any of this makes any sense at all… Maybe I’ll go get more coffee reread this to gasp in horror. Or, maybe not.

Warmest and much love to all, xo, H

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Heather_Fowler February 18, 2008 at 11:33 am

You are so hip, Carolyn. And giving! And lovely. 😉 I believe this and you will not persuade me otherwise. Warmest, H

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass February 18, 2008 at 11:35 am

Thank you, gracious Heather. Still, I’m wondering how hip a person can be when they can’t control their email’s auto responder.

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Heather_Fowler February 18, 2008 at 11:37 am

I love that you want to be a plump, savory sausage. I want to be a slim frond of orchid that never dies, with blooms ever-increasing. One that can have multiple colors and types of blooms. But also, one that can fly and taste and revel in enjoying the scent of a breakfast house and your writerly sausage. Oh dear, I did not mean that last part in a foul way. Okay, maybe I want to be a moonbeam instead. Or an essence of experience. Or a, or a, or a…. Clearly, I do need more coffee. My ideas grow stranger and stranger. ML, LOL! xo, H

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lance_reynald February 18, 2008 at 12:11 pm

the fact that you did indeed stump me must reveal some kind of mask.

I spent years doing what had to be done, struggling along trying to resemble responsible; perhaps all of that was some kind of mask. I like to think that I am finally living without one. It feels as though I am.

perhaps certainty is the new mask. I’m living the life I dreamed and most people seem to think I do it well…but certainty is far from the truth. it’s all anxiety and tailspin every day.

but yes, we finally have a question that has me stumped.

I like to believe that I’ve let the mask down. what you see is what you get. just Me.

somewhere in all of that I hope they say I made good art out of it.

but again; certainty.

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Aurelio February 18, 2008 at 12:35 pm

Ha – I didn’t consider the potential rudeness of my sausage metaphor. *blush*

I see you as an orchid, Heather, so the mask is working! Behind that slim frond of orchid though, I see a bouquet of vivid wildflowers peeking out.

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troutbum70 February 18, 2008 at 3:02 pm

I hope people think I know where the hell I’m going. Most of the time I do. Thou sometimes I’m lost and must bluff my way through.

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Heather_Fowler February 18, 2008 at 5:31 pm

You are the best! I love that I am wildflowers, too! Big hugs, H

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Rachel Kramer Bussel February 18, 2008 at 6:24 pm

Susan, it was not only wonderful to meet you, but I was SO moved by your piece about church. I hope to see you read again soon. And that’s such wonderful news about Kim!

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Aurelio February 18, 2008 at 7:31 pm

That color is so nice on you.

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SusanHenderson February 18, 2008 at 7:42 pm

Michael, Lance, Heather, Gail, Tracer, Carolyn, Aimee, Aurelio, Nathalie, Kimberly, Sarah, and Betsy, I love these responses. I am trying to fight my impulse to take 40 minutes and respond to each one because I’m on a serious regimen with my book. Just know that I think you’re all great.

Rachel – Next time, I’ll come see you read. I’m surprised I even read the church piece, but I’m glad you liked it.

I’ll post here for anyone who’s interested, and then I’m right back into my book because Mr. H is reading to the boys and giving me the whole evening to write:

The Pew in Front of Us

In church today, I intercept a note that reads: I like snots. There’s a picture that goes with it: a stick guy picking his nose. One of my sons drew it on the Prayer Request card and passed it to the other, but now they’re sitting up straight and won’t tell who drew it.

We’ve just begun to let our boys sit alone in the pew in front of us.

“Which one of you has the pencil, that’s what I want to know?” I’m cupping my mouth with the open hymn book and trying to talk below the volume of the choir.

My husband thinks I can let these things go, but really, it’s nice to have a little action in church. The boys and I get bored on Sundays, and only my husband can sit still for the whole service.

I set the Prayer Request card beside Dexter, my oldest, and let my boys know “We’ll be discussing this later.” The laughter stops. But Calvin, the little one, knows the secret of getting out of trouble: ask for a potty break. We head down the aisle, and I hear giggles and soft clapping from the church members. My son is a creative dresser. Today he’s wearing rubber boots, clip-on earrings and a belt sideways across his chest.

We use the women’s bathroom together because even in church I worry about abductions.

He heads for one stall and I head for another. I see his yellow boots skipping around in his stall and realize he’s faked having to go and this was all an excuse to goof around with the toilet paper holder.

Soon he crawls under the space from his stall into mine, just as I’m pulling my dress back down.

“Mommy. I really like your underwear.”

“Let’s get back to our seats, Calvin.”

“I like the blue polka dots. Someday I want to have dots on my underwear because I really like them.”

I notice just now that there is a woman in the next stall. I can hear her trying not to snort. Her shoes—and they appear to be nursing shoes, gray-white and clunky—are lifting up and down like even her feet are laughing.

“I like the blue dots,” Calvin continues. “Except purple’s my favorite color.”

“I know it is, Calvin.”

I hurry him to the sink and we wash up. As I open the door, Calvin reaches into his rubber boots and pulls his socks above the tops. He walks with confidence through the door and toward his seat because he knows whenever he travels down the aisle, he gets stares and applause.

~

My husband and I joined this church before we were married. Membership was required to use it as a backdrop for our wedding photos. I don’t tell my friends I still come here because they’ll think things like: crusaders, literalists, homophobes, Darwinphobes and Republicans.

I’m still sorting out what I believe. A lot of things confuse me around here. Eternity: Does this mean being me is inescapable? How is that not the same thing as Hell? Prayer: After I pray, I usually hear a voice inside saying, “How could you mess up again? What kind of idiot keeps making the same mistakes?” Is it possible that God is just a mightier version of my dad? Grace: Getting something I haven’t earned should inspire me to do better, but this week alone, I’ve lied, I’ve treated my neighbors the way they better not treat me, and I’ve shamed Dexter until he cried.

Every night at tuck-in time, if I’ve forgotten to say it earlier in the day, I tell my children that I love them. I tell them that even on the days I can’t tuck them in fast enough. People like me need regular attitude adjustments. You have to remind me every single week to be grateful, to stop thinking of myself, to stop coveting, to see beyond my various complaints and desires.

My husband nudges me to open a book. I open another for the kids and pass it to their row, even though they can’t read these big words. Maybe somewhere, in one of these books or from these unfashionable dressers, they’ll get that thing I don’t have—the belief in unconditional love, everyone equal in the eyes of God, calm in the midst of inevitable trauma and chaos. A belief in a force out there that’s bigger and fairer and more forgiving than their mommy.

The ushers pass the collection plate, and before I can do anything about it, I see them carry the boys’ Prayer Request Card to the altar.

I’m lip-syncing earnestly. The pastor’s wife is looking right at me and I notice her shoes. They are not cool shoes, and that’s to be expected from a pastor’s wife. But they are the same not-cool looks-like-nursing-shoes from the bathroom stall. She grins at me, and I know what she’s thinking: blue polka dots.

I bow my head together with the congregation. During prayer, I kiss along the back of my husband’s neck while everyone around us has their eyes shut. He smiles and pulls my hands into prayer with his. The boys, I discover, are kneeling backwards on the seat and giggling at me—Dexter with his missing teeth and Calvin with his clip-ons swinging. I laugh with them, and can only hope that God has the same sense of humor about me.

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Kimberly February 18, 2008 at 7:46 pm

Awww…

Personally, I think it matches my “go-get-’em” personality way better than dark champagne blonde…

But what does it say about me that I openly tell people that I mask the blonde???

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Aurelio February 19, 2008 at 9:56 am

“You’re sitting in a pew,” was all it took for me to get my little brother to laugh out loud in church. I once saw a deaf couple signing and thought it was so cool because they could yak all during Mass without being shushed.

All day I’ll be thinking about snot drawings and blue polka dots.

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Heather_Fowler February 19, 2008 at 10:49 am

P.S. And you see, I already failed in my New Year’s resolution for using spellcheck and making sure I don’t drop words… Ah well. A missing “what” before “was” in a poem–double offense for screwing up the the meter, and a typo–life goes on! Love your church piece, Susan! Hope those edits go well. Much love to all, H

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aimeepalooza February 19, 2008 at 2:38 pm

I love this story. I love the idea of a little boy in church wearing clip on earrings and wanting blue polka dot panties.

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Kimberly February 19, 2008 at 2:49 pm

Now that I’ve read “FT” I get so giggly when I hear stories about you & your brothers…

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Erin February 19, 2008 at 4:59 pm

I want people to think I’m a unique, bona fide, irreplaceable human being. The reality is, I’m just a forgery of qualities I find admirable in others; counterfeit to the core. There is nothing genuine here.

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SusanHenderson February 19, 2008 at 5:12 pm

Just a heads up about tomorrow, folks. My advice to writers hoping for a break is always to look for the side doors and the bathroom windows. I’m running a contest tomorrow that you should really consider entering. If you’ve been standing in the big line you’ve been told to stand in and knocking at the big door people told you to knock on (and nobody’s answering), please, please enter the contest.

See you tomorrow. And thanks for all these notes. I’m reading them all, and then I’m bunkering down with my book edits. xo

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robinslick February 19, 2008 at 5:37 pm

I started to answer the question and got so wrapped up in the church story I don’t even want to answer the question now. Wow, Sue. That kind of took my breath away.

But okay, how can I not play. I hope people think I am confident and self-assured. But oh my God, that’s so not true and probably the only person more neurotic is Woody Allen.

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Aurelio February 19, 2008 at 9:19 pm

Awww, thanks Kimberly. My childhood was such a mix of hijinks and tragedy. As a writer it is a goldmine, but living it was… well, a different story.

A favorite line my brother used on me once when he was really REALLY mad at me was, “If you wake up with a knife in your belly, you’ll know who did it!” My immediate reaction was to burst out laughing, because I pictured myself yawning awake, then glancing down at my belly, surprised to see a knife protruding out. Like, I wouldn’t notice it at all until I was awake? When I stopped laughing, I explained this to my brother. What could he do? He laughed too.

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Rachel F February 24, 2008 at 12:15 am

If I had my druthers, I’d hug Rachel Kramer Bussel every single day. Also, more people would say druthers.

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