Friday, August 26, 2011

Alter Egocentric

I’ve always had a thing for alter egos. I use them in my writing classes to explore both the creation of characters and the characters that we already have, existing within ourselves.

When I was a child I had imaginary friends. They’re every bit as real to me now as they were to me then, but now I see them on the inside rather than the out. I use them to navigate different stories as they play out in my life—in my head and on the page.

I am Rachel, the Jewish daughter and devoted cook. I am Bad Valley, refusing to take multi-vitamins and stumbling on and off buses in New York City. I am Madge from DMV wearing mumus and curlers, smoking menthols and burning TV dinners for one in the microwave.

Recently, when describing a few of these characters to my writing students, they explained the difference to me between multiple personalities and schizophrenia. We had a good laugh, but I think writers, to some extent or another, welcome whatever voices they manage to hear.

When I keep my alternate personalities in perspective, they give me great pleasure. When I become all of one and none of the others, my world tilts akimbo like a full dinner plate set on its edge.

Because if I’m right about anything it’s how often I’m wrong about myself. My opinion is often too high or too low, but rarely right on target. Maybe it’s not me but the full-time narrator in my head who gets a little carried away, but even small situations can become full-blown dramas, epic comedies, devastating love stories of the highest order. Greek tragedies play out on my small suburban street. Roman gods converse on my couch. Everyone I know has a Harry Potter double. I mythologize people who then become too big or too small to stay molded into the shape I’ve assigned them, but then too, they get to play some pretty exciting major roles opposite the cast in my head. And who wouldn’t want that?

Recently my husband and I were watching Ice Road Truckers: India and I was struck, as if for the first time, by the statue of Kali they were assigned to haul intact up the treacherous roads of the Himalayas. “Kali,” they explained as the North American truckers danced along with the traditional Hindu ceremony, “drinks the blood of her enemies and then stomps on the body of the gods!” I looked at her take-no-prisoners face lit up with glee and knew suddenly that she exists and has always existed within me, just as surely as the Good Citizen I was awarded for being in the first grade. My mother had kept a poster of her on the inside of our bathroom door in my childhood home and I had stared at her face for years and years, never realizing until this week that what I had been staring at all along was just another character lost and then found inside of me.

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