I read a poem this morning, the first of the poems that will be published on Tor.com as part of Poetry Month. It’s by Neil Gaiman, and it’s called “House.” It starts like this:
“Sometimes I think it’s like I live in a big giant head on a hilltop
made of papier mache, a big giant head of my own head.”
The poem describes how the man lives in a house shaped like his own giant head, cleaning the windows (which are the eyes), mowing the grass around it. And people drive past, waving not to him, but to the giant head, because “they think the house is me.” It isn’t, of course.
What it is, is a metaphor. I suppose a giant house shaped like a head would have to be!
The most important lines of the poem, to me anyway, are these:
“I’ll be sleeping there, or polishing the eyes, or weeding the lawn,
but no-one will see me, no-one would look.”
There’s a sense in which this is a poem about being someone like Neil Gaiman, someone so famous that he is no longer seen as a person. People no longer see him. They see the giant Neil Gaiman head. But it’s also a metaphor for how we experience other people in general: we so often don’t see them, and they so often don’t feel seen. Instead, we see who we think they are, the giant heads of themselves. The houses they inhabit, not the selves that are the inhabitants.
Strangely enough, some of the most authentic people I’ve met have been people who are famous. It’s as though they insist on authenticity — they insist on being themselves, specifically because they feel as though they are being made artificial. They know that people don’t see them, and so whenever they can, they insist on being seen as they are, even if that image is not particularly flattering. They take actions or express opinions that may be controversial, that may cause debate, but reflect what they think and feel. They want, so much, to be seen not as constructs, but as people.
It’s uncomfortable, not being seen as a person.
But we all get that to a certain extent: the giant heads we live in are constructed partially by us, but also partially by others, by who they think we are. And if we are writers or artists, there’s an assumption that we are our writing, our art.
There’s something I’ve learned about writing these posts, which is that when they become hard to write, when the sentences feel like snakes twisting around in my hands, it’s because the subject it too personal. It hits too close to the giant head that is my home. And this subject is personal, I think. Because we all get this, and I get it too: the sense of living in an artificial construct that is perceived as my self, that is addressed instead of me. The value of friends is that they see you, the real you: they automatically look through the windows and know you’re in there. One of the saddest thing, I think, is meeting someone you would like to be a friend who doesn’t do that, who can’t seem to see the person in the construct.
There is a particular pain in not being seen. In not being perceived as a person.
A friend of mine and I were talking about this last summer, sitting in my grandmother’s apartment in Budapest: two women who write fantasy, discussing how easy it seems for people to confuse the writer with the work, or even simply with an image online.
As my illustration for this post, I’ve chosen A Woman’s Head by Fernand Khnopff. She’s beautiful, isn’t she? Iconic, almost. But she must have been a real woman who modeled for the artist. I wonder who she was, and what she was like as a person . . .
There was a point, as I was reading this, when I thought, “Oh my God, that’s it exactly!” and I wish I could remember which line it is, but reading back over it nothing stands out. Sigh.
When I was a teenager (and really not very happy) I thought of myself as being two distinct people. There was Emily, who was the polite, responsible, competent, “good” kid; and there was Em, who was the “real” me who thought about getting tattoos (or at least dyeing her hair) and who thought and said all kinds of things Emily never would — but only in private, only to close friends.
I’ve gotten over at least some of that, but I still find that I introduce myself as Emily, and that few if any of my close friends call me that. They’ll look at you funny if you refer to me as Emily, and assume for at least a few seconds that you’re talking about someone else. And when one of my friends does call me Emily it stands out in a way that makes me really uncomfortable . . .
Em, I get that a bit with Theodora and Dora: my friends call me Dora, and people only call me Theodora when they don’t know me, when they’re referring to the public, professional me. Some people call me Theo, and I always wonder who they’re talking about, what sort of character they’ve turned me into in their heads . . .
Huh! I’m not sure whether I like the idea of being a character in someone else’s head, but it’s certainly intriguing and I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it quite that way!
The nickname that entertains me is Emmy, because I’m really not one. At all. But somehow it makes sense that the people who call me Emmy call me that, even if it doesn’t make sense to call *me* that. Is there a pattern you’ve noticed to who calls you Theo instead of Theodora or Dora?
That’s very interesting Em(ily)! I had the same kind of experience – I had my “real” name “Laura for my “good”, conventional side, and I had “Athena” (gave myself the name) for my wild, strong, magical side.
It took ages for me to be able to accept that Laura and Athena were two sides of the same person. But when I did, it was empowering. Now I call myself “Laura Athena” to recognise the validity of those sides of me, but to express also the “wholeness” of who I am.
Because I live in San Francisco, we are aware of famous people and try not to annoy
them. My rule is to have a reason, like asking a wonderful writer for an autograph. Having a job in a Nob Hill hotel required dealing with the famous, famous actor grouching about not being able to open up his suitcase. Lana Turner friendly & nice. Good memories.
The saddest story of a famous person is the day I was walking up the hill to my job when I saw an older man walking down, with two well dressed women of a certain age. I noticed that he wore one of the most beautiful suits I have ever seen. The craftsmanship, the details. I am crazy about great menswear. I then glanced at his face and saw a look of horror. It was Johnny Carson. I felt so awful and also, misjudged. For once, it was the suit and not the man. Had I seen his face first I would have turned away sooner.
Phyllis, why do you think he looked at you in horror? I also try to do the same thing when I meet people who are famous: just try not to bother them . . .
He had a very mobile face, one I had seen with many variations on TV.
My hunch was the look of awe on my face, which he just didn’t want to
deal with. It is said in private he was very shy.
Em: It’s almost always men who call me Theo. No idea why. 🙂
I can only call you Theodora as we have never met and I would never dream of using someone’s intimate ‘pet name’ without their express invitation, of course. I would probably call you Ms. Goss if it wasn’t for the fact that these days that does just seem excessively formal!
I do understand this about being seen. When I was a performer, never famous but in the eye of a very definite public, I was hugely conflicted between the maintenance of my stage and TV persona and my real, secret self. I think one of the reasons I became exhausted by performance and had to quit was the constant emotional strain of living up to the expectations of others.
I allow myself now to be very honest about who I am. And I’ve lost friends and gained friends in consequence. I’ve also given up a career. But I’m now forging a new one – as a writer – and I hope, should my name ever be known as yours is, that I will be able to maintain this honesty.
That said, Neil Gaiman (although I have never had the chance to meet him face to face) has always given me the impression in interviews I have seen of being able to maintain himself as himself. But how can I possibly know? That is the point, isn’t it?
I do hope you won’t mind me saying this here but one thing I have noticed among your FaceBook commentators is a persistent crowd of men who seem only to leave slightly lascivious comments about your physical appearance and not much else. I’ve labelled them ‘the droolers.’ I would not like that. They seem also to be the same people who call you Theo. It seems to me an horrendous misjudgement and a demonstration of a total lack of social propriety on their part. Not only that but I don’t know how you tolerate it. I think I would find it distasteful at best and even a little threatening at worst. But I am not you and you may be stronger than I am.
I do suspect, that however it expresses itself – directly in a personal blog or obliquely through a work of fiction – it is, in the end, honesty and self-revelation that sets a remarkable writer apart from a merely competent one. Somehow that may be where the identification of the real self and the identification as a writer, a public figure, can meet and find comfortable space together.
We all share a common soul in a sense and experience the same joys, fears, achievements and anxieties for the most part. Isn’t it part of the writer’s calling to be courageous and speak these things not only for oneself but also for those who are too timid to do so? Perhaps. I don’t know.
I do hope that you are not locked in a tower of loneliness, surrounded only by servants and worshippers. I do hope that you have a reliable ‘place’ where you can both see and be seen, in truth. I know the terrible loneliness that can come from not having that. I wouldn’t wish it on you or anyone.
May you be well. Wishing you every good thing.
Thank you for a lovely comment, Austin! You can certainly call me Dora. I think of anyone with whom I have mutual friends like Terri as a friend. 🙂
Some of the most authentic people I’ve met have been ones like Neil Gaiman, China Mieville, George R. R. Martin. And I think it’s exactly because it simply takes too much energy to maintain a persona, especially when you’re doing things at the level they are. So they don’t even try.
As for the comments, I block anyone who seems genuinely threatening. But I’ve gotten comments like that since I was a teenager, and the truth is that I’m used to them. I think most women are. They shouldn’t have to be, perhaps, but that’s the world we live in. I could stop most of it by not posting photographs, but I don’t want to do that — I don’t want to pretend that I have no physical existence. It’s taken me a long time to like and be comfortable with the way I look, which is a whole other side of being a woman, and I’m not going to pretend that I don’t like pretty dresses!
I think you’re absolutely right that the writer’s job is to express what we all feel, but can’t all say. I should say, that’s part of my job. 🙂 And I try.
I don’t have the sort of place you describe at the moment, but I hope to find one, someday. I think we all need that.
Good wishes back . . .
Thank you, Dora.
While I’m sorry to read that you have to suffer the horribly banal, everyday sexism that is endemic in our society, I’m glad to get a sense of your healthy disregard for such commentaries. So many of us who write are people who have, in a variety of ways, had to develop strategies of self-protection in that complex and difficult time of childhood. Then, perhaps everyone does and, as we have said, it is simply that the writers give expression to these things.
I think you should certainly never have to pretend that you don’t like pretty dresses! The problem doesn’t dwell anywhere near your elegant house and lands. It writhes and squirms in the lair of the drooling man-pack.
Anyway, enough of that. These people really shouldn’t have such a claim on our thoughts.
I’m sure that you will find ‘a place’ in time. I know you will.
I’m very much looking forward to your new story and indeed, coming back here later today to read your new post.
Every good thing be yours,
Thank you for that confidence! The fact that other people feel it makes me feel it too. 🙂