‘Mask’ was first written to fulfil an assignment for an MA Creative Writing course on genre. My idea was to produce a conventional crime caper – the story of a naïve girl sucked into a world she doesn’t understand. The story went through a workshopping process and I received some useful feedback. Further constructive changes were suggested by a student editorial team after the piece was selected for publication in Birkbeck’s creative writing anthology, Mechanics’ Institute Review, Issue 5.
By the time the story appeared in print, under the title ‘The Confidence Trick’, it had gone through quite a number of drafts and, like many things we’re close to, I couldn’t see it anymore. So I set it aside –for almost long enough to forget the making of it.
Then, late last year, I dusted it off and took another look. By now, I was in the middle of writing a collection of stories set in contemporary South Africa. I wanted to see if ‘The Confidence Trick’ would fit in with the new stuff, most of which coalesces around the business of remembering, and making sense of South Africa’s turbulent recent past; or was it irredeemably ‘genre lite’?
Re-reading the story as though it had been written by someone else was, well, wince-making. All sorts of problems jumped out at me: the first section took ages to get to the point; the pace throughout was a bit plodding and pedestrian; the character of Pieter was implausible; the main character’s ‘voice’ was too diffident; and so on.
But there was still something about Charnay and her plight that I really liked. Post-apartheid South Africa is beset by identity confusion and a spirit of greedy materialism, and as I went over the story, I decided there were parts that could be given more attention and importance, emphasizing the drama of the ‘mask’ the central character is wearing, pursuing the theme of people trying out new personas and roles.
So I thought it might be worth setting up camp in Charnay’s head again, until I could figure some of this stuff out. I began to rework the story to give the ‘mask’ aspect more room; sort of nudge it into sight. (NOT impose it – that would be dreadful. It needed to rise out of the material naturally.) Hence the arrival of such details as the glittering mirror of massage oil, and the title itself.)
The biggest decision was to change the tense to the second person singular. I know it’s a bit of a risk – rare is the story successfully written from this point of view. But recently I have stumbled across a run of good ‘uns, including Petina Gappah’s ‘In the Heart of the Golden Triangle’ (from the collection An Elegy for Easterly); Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s title story from The Thing Around Your Neck, and Parselelo Kantai’s ‘You Wreck Her’, which was shortlisted for 2010’s Caine Prize for African Writing. So I was inspired to give it a try.
It turned out to be useful for several reasons. First, it shifts the delicate balance of authority from the author / narrator to the principal character, who now tells the story directly. Second, it adds immediacy to events as they unfold. It infuses a kind of edginess and urgency – the sense of a narrator running on adrenalin, and on borrowed time. It both foregrounds character and indicates tensions at the same time.
A drawback to the second person singular is that it can be confusing to the reader, suggesting that the narrator is one half of a divided consciousness talking to the other. But in this case, where the relationship between the narrator and the subject is all about a masking of feelings, I think it makes sense.
Another major alteration was transforming the character of Pieter into Sandro, the Brazilian on a bender. Pieter the Afrikaner redneck was just too implausible, I decided – could he really be a doctor? I also wanted there to be a sense that this character recognises something about Charnay; that he in the recent past might have made some sort of deal with the devil himself.
The poet Paul Verlaine once said that a poem is never finished, only abandoned. Certainly, going through this whole process with ‘Mask’ has made me less afraid of redrafting and experimenting until I find a method that works better. I write very slowly anyway, going over a draft more and more times; and even then I keep pushing it, trying to make sure it’s completely coherent and self-contained. It seems to fit the production of short stories, which by their nature resemble a fragment or shard, speaking to wider human experience by focusing on a single patch of time. The challenge is to prevent the work from ending up fragmented – a kind of atmospheric vignette instead of a rounded whole.
Finally, though, and with great relief, I got to the point where I could ‘abandon’ ‘Mask’ with a bit more satisfaction. Was I successful? It’s up to you to decide.