Part of Charlotte Lit’s “Keeping Pen to Paper” Series.
Until a few weeks ago, the only surgical masks I encountered were those worn by characters on my favorite medical TV dramas—ER, Gray’s Anatomy, and House, M.D.—and by my dentist and dental hygienist at my twice-yearly cleanings and checkups. Now, the surgical mask is haute couture, which has me thinking about “masking” as metaphor and archetype.
Wearing a mask is a way of touching the archetypal world of forms. When we intentionally cover our ever-changing faces with something plastic or static, we focus on just one aspect of our being. It’s a way of entering mythical time, of experiencing one of life’s highest, lowest, or most often repeated human dramas—an initiation like graduation, marriage, or parenthood; or a typical situation like birth, falling in love, heartbreak, old age, or death.
Masking puts a barrier between us and the world. When we don a mask, whether literal or figurative, we protect, veil, or conceal our total selves from others. At the same time, we reveal or shine a light on particular aspects of our characters. Psychologist C. G. Jung posited that we all present a masked self, a specifically curated version of our more complex wholeness, to the world. He called this self the Persona, a term he borrowed from the masks worn by actors in classical Greek theatre. The Persona isn’t a problem unless we begin to believe that the mask is all we are.
This is where writers have an advantage. We study the roles beneath the masks we typically show the world by trying on other aspects of ourselves. We cloak our personal experiences inside the characters we create. And, we “try on” experiences we’ve not yet had by imagining ourselves into new situations, allowing ourselves to act out hidden desires and impulses.
Nonfiction writers also assume a mask: the mask of the writer. This mask permits us to step back, to become less active as participants and more active as observers. Imagine a carnival wallflower hiding behind his or her mask while sipping champagne in a shadowy corner of the ballroom. We can see life very differently from this vantage point.
This week’s writing prompt wears three masks:
- Reflect on a “mask” experience you’ve had or witnessed over the last week. This might be a surface-level exploration of life in the age of COVID-19 or a humorous riff on the theme of surgical masks.
- Write about a mask you have worn, physical or metaphoric. How did you feel beneath the mask? In what ways were you different? What feelings and impulses did the mask allow you to express? How did others engage differently with you?
- Explore “masking” from the point of view of a fictional character. What aspect of themselves does your character hide behind? How does this mask benefit your character? What does it cost them? (Bonus points: What part of yourself does this character mask or protect? What do they say or do that you can’t or won’t?)