The Mask of Fear by Elizabeth Mitchell

It’s inevitable. Every Round, I’ll have a great idea for a sponsor post that gets blown out of the water by something I see or read just days before I have to write the post.  Yes, that has happened again. Kait Nolan put up the vlog post “Masks Writers Wear,” by Kelsey Macke. In this post, Kelsey points out the mask of indifference — denying that we care what our readers think; the mask of fear — denying our fear of what people think, of what might happen, or not happen with our creative work; and the mask of invincibility — denying our  fragility and inability to be everything to everyone all the time.

Masks are how we hide the three-year-old who is afraid of the unknown.  I have perfected so many masks in my repertoire.  I took the New York  subway for the first time two weeks ago, hiding behind my blasé “Yes, I do this all the time” mask. I enter a classroom or an interview with my “Nervous? Not me!” mask firmly in place.  These are necessary masks; they minimize being bothered by the guys selling tours outside Grand Central Terminal or maximize convincing the students or employers you know your stuff.

The majority of the writing I have done all my life is heavily masked.  My thoughts are well hidden under hypothesis and proof; emotion is unseemly and unwanted.  Scholarly writing is akin to a technically perfect, and utterly lifeless, piano performance. There is no heart, no passion; while such is the goal of academic and technical writing, it is what makes creative nonfiction and fiction dull and uninteresting. I have struggled with the proportions of how much to reveal and how much to hide in my writing; I know I am not alone.

My strongest reaction to this vlog post, however, is to the mask of fear. Kelsey Macke points out good writing needs the heart-stopping fear that comes with being vulnerable and exposed.  If I have never had the experience, I have to work through it as though I have, without masks and distance.  If I have gone through the experience, hurts must be explored, hearts and souls bared to an uncomfortable degree. I have to talk to the three-year-old, who remembers far too clearly all the fears, traumas, and slights of my entire life, and who is incapable of smoothing the mask over any of them.  Talking to that child is among the scariest things I can imagine, because everything is still raw, new, and painful.  Although when I write I hide the details so my family will still send dinner invitations, I allow the details the power to hurt me again, in order to put that into the words.

Nothing else is more persuasive that creative writing is not for wimps. There is no mask in place; there is no distance between the three-year-old soul and the reader.


Elizabeth Mitchell


6 thoughts on “The Mask of Fear by Elizabeth Mitchell

  1. Wow. Elizabeth, can I understand absolutely and in a visceral way. I went through this when I started blogging about my childhood about a year and a half ago and am going through it again. You, Kait and Kelsey are 100% correct about that fear and vulnerability. Once dealt with is no cure. There are no masks that can heal it. I live in what is politely known as da ‘hood and I’ve been committed for mental illness. I am not afraid of anything out there on the street and can out-crazy anybody outside and will, as any weakness will be exploited. It’s a harsh world, but it has its graces; there are people to be helped and although I didn’t start out here, I ended up here. I live with it every day. But, I still have to live in my own head and that’s where the fear lies. An interesting thing to ponder, again, as I plow through NaNoWriMo and try to keep up (badly) in #ROW80, but so very much appreciated. Thank you, Elizabeth.

    1. Great points, Mary. I’ve lived in the ‘hood, too, and the fear in my head is much stronger than anything I felt there. I am working still on the vulnerability, but i have a long way to go. My best to you as you ponder.

  2. Masks are everywhere. While Chris Rock’s humor wears on me, I dod have to agree with his sentiment about dating… You aren’t meeting a person on a first date–you’re meeting their representative.

    And so it is with most any other meeting in life. We all spritz more for public, we ‘dress for success’ on the job, we smile when our gushing aunts kiss our cheeks, we… We do it to survive.

    But sometimes the masks become us, and in the case of fear, we allow ourselves to stop trying so hard for fear of failure. Negative ‘self-talk’ at its worst. We hurt ourselves in our attempts to protect ourselves…

    What you’re doing is very brave, Elizabeth. It takes time to get past our pasts. And a lot of courage….

    1. Eden, that is a great line from Chris Rock. So much of our lives are lived by our representatives. It’s difficult to face our failures in any realm, but writing is one of the most difficult, given how much we have bared our souls. I hadn’t fully committed to writing a memoir when I wrote this post, but that fear certainly fits, too.

      I think it’s brave to commit anything in paper or pixels, but it is in that bravery that we often find what really matters to us.

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