There is your “social self” and “essential self”. Your essential self is your true self. It alone knows what you need to thrive. It tries to send that knowledge up through your social self like seedlings struggling up through the dirt to break surface, seek sunlight. You get glimmerings. You get flashes of insight. You get pained in body and mind when your life steers in the wrong direction. Generally it’s your essential self that has the driving desire to be a writer, or artist of any kind. (Unless you’re just in it for the money. And all that wild sex.)
Your social self is the mask you piece together over the years to present to the world at large. You do it in order to get along and be accepted and loved and conventionally successful. The problem is we don’t always know where the mask ends and the essential self begins. The image, the social self, gets welded to our psychic skin. (A small percentage of people lose their essential selves entirely and believe that they are their image, to the extent that they feed their image instead of their souls: these people are known as narcissists, and tend to be a wee bit difficult in relationships, and tortured and lonely at core. But I digress.)
There’s a huge call in social media to be authentic. On the Web, you can be anyone. You can hide behind any kind of identity. So you need to show who you are if you are to earn trust (and if people don’t trust you, they won’t follow you or do business with or fan you…why would they?).
But creative work demands the greatest authenticity of all. Your creative voice is your true voice, and I think that’s why so many of us find it so threatening. You have to crack apart your social mask in order to let that clarion call come through.
That call will make demands on you. It doesn’t care about what’s convenient or acceptable, or what it might cost you. The truth will set you free, but first it might shatter your life as you know it.
So it’s one thing to write lovely prose, or show off good technique; it’s another thing entirely to go there, to get real, to infuse your work with the originality of your spirit.
I think that’s why there’s a strong relationship – in real life as well as in the stereotypes – between suffering and art. It’s not so much that suffering in and of itself makes for better art. Suffering shatters your social mask. If you don’t fight the process – if you flow with it, form a relationship with it – suffering lets the world come into you and breaks you open to the sense of a shared (and very human) experience.
It also makes it easier for your essential self to tell your social self to fuck off (pardon my French). Pain puts you outside the normal structure of things. Which also means it’s easier to rebel, and I think all creative work involves a deep and secret rebellion. It’s you, expressing who you truly are. It’s you, spitting truth to power.
And when you do this, you give other people permission to do the same (or rather: you inspire them to give themselves permission to do the same). We connect to each other through our vulnerability. Which is why vulnerability can be an expression of great strength – and not just the weakness we’ve been trained to believe it (which is what necessitates those social masks in the first place). To go onstage and show your soul? The ‘good’ girl has to admit her inner badness. The ‘strong’ man has to admit his softness. We confess the paradoxes and contradictions that we are, and the wounded beauty of our fucked-up shadowy places.
Which is why the world needs your story, your true story, however you choose to tell it (because art is a lie that exposes the truth). Your social self will tell you what you "should" write – and what you shouldn’t. Treat your social self with gentleness and compassion – and then get it the hell out of your way.