I’m a writer. But I don’t use my own name. I don’t show my true face. I wear a mask.
My wife isn’t quite sure about this. “Psychologists would have a field day with you,” she says, during playful moods.
At other times, she is outright suspicious. I wonder if she thinks I’m like Kevin Bacon in that dirty invisible man film. Creeping around the internet with my mask on, cackling like a Victorian villain, tying decency to the tracks.
I have my reasons for this disguise. (None of these involve being a dirty invisible Kevin Bacon.)
First, I’ve always thought that, until it starts bringing in money, I’d be embarrassed if my workmates knew about my typing habit.
My job has a little bit to do with this – I’d feel demeaned if colleagues knew I wrote. Most folk would be supportive, I suppose, but it isn’t “most folk” that make the biggest impression in life – it’s the bastards.
It would certainly give some people ammunition to take a pop at me. I have a thick skin, but I know the laws of the jungle. You present a possible weakness, it gets exploited.
This also has a fair bit to do with my childhood, where my activities as a seven-year-old writer and comic book artist were laughed at by some family members.
“Why do you bother with that stupid stuff? Does that girl you drew have boobs?”
An older brother used to find it hilarious to steal the stories and comic strips I wrote and show them to his girlfriends and mates, then delight in telling me how much they laughed about it. When I was nine I wrote an entire illustrated Choose Your Own Adventure-style book about – what else, in 1986? – a Ninja. He was probably a crap Ninja, as I recall, because you could see him on every page. Having conversations with people, etc. He had a cool ninja mask, though.
It took me months. My brother stole it and I never saw it again. I saw him do it. When I asked him what happened, he swore he didn’t know a thing about it.
Where I come from, creativity is a bit effete. It was something I loved, but it became something furtive, something hidden, of necessity. In the closet, you might say.
Secondly, in a world where image is very important, my face isn’t an advantage.
It used to be that writers with actual writing careers could be faceless, an almost perfect scenario where you have a chance of success and even a level of fame while still being able to walk down the street, unrecognised. Nowadays, that’s becoming less likely for authors. You need an online profile to sell yourself, a face to go with the name.
I am increasingly horrified by what I see of my true face in photographs, the changes that time has wrought. Of course, you don’t have to be a writer to realise that you could be this month’s cover star for Faces of Fuck Magazine.
This feeling certainly involves some ego. To paraphrase a chilling statement uttered by a female relative a few years ago: “When you were a wee boy, I used to think you would grow up to be the most handsome man. What happened?”
A while ago I was compared to former Doctor Who actor David Tennant by a drunken woman in a pub, which, while hilarious, I must admit I found flattering. To be clear, I don’t resemble him in the slightest, and I think the woman was off her head. I’ve got dark hair and eyes and a Scottish accent, but that’s it.
Well… I say it was flattering. That was only for a moment, until a friend I was with at the time made a more truthful comparison: “Yes, he’s like David Tennant… in a hall of mirrors.”
To counter this very favourable review, and to give you a more complete picture of what I look like, another drunken woman in a pub a couple of years prior to this compared me to portly breakfast TV host Eamonn Holmes. I should hope there’s no resemblance at all there, either… but she must have said it for a reason.
If someone had handed me a literal mask that day, I should probably have worn it. Certainly I stepped it up in the gym from that day forth.
The truth of my appearance, regrettably, lies in the centre of these two extremes.
So, a mask preserves some dignity.
But on top of that, I enjoy the mystique of the false identity; the hidden face, even though it is mostly in my head. Obviously, a stuffed Highland cow avatar isn’t quite as thrilling and mysterious as being Batman. And I’m not looking to solve crimes or bring justice to people, or indeed do anything remotely important.
But there is the thrill of being part of a conspiracy, no matter how small. And like the masked heroes and supermen, there are some people who do know my real name, the supporters and confidants. They help me get through, and give me a push to carry on.
The thing which some people find hard to grasp is that being Pat Black isn’t about putting a mask on. I feel as if I’ve taken a mask off.
I’ve written about topics and scenarios that I wouldn’t have dreamed of addressing had I written under my own name, out in the open. My writing feels more honest, more real, as a result – and in some cases much more personal, too.
Masks aren’t always a good thing, of course. We all know that internet anonymity can be corrosive, a cover for sadism, spite and jealousy. But rather than indulging my dark side, being Pat Black has set me free. There’s no pressure to be anyone or anything, and that’s liberating.
Pat Black feels like the real me.
This is a smudged picture of the man behind the mask. His identity is safe… for now.
Perhaps one day I’ll be able to take the mask off, and it won’t matter if friends, family or former colleagues know what I get up to in here and elsewhere, under cover of the night.
But for now… you’re stuck with the furry face.