Hello there. Allow me to introduce myself: my name is Matt Gemmell.
You might know me as this Matt Gemmell. A lot of people used to know me as this Matt Gemmell, too. I’m currently trying to be this Matt Gemmell.
But I said I was going to introduce myself, and I’m none of those people.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise – we all pretend to be versions of ourselves, especially online, but also in different real-life contexts. You’re one person at work, another when socialising with a particular group of friends, another at home, and so on.
These personas can be a trap.
For one thing, you’re inviting others to associate you, the actual person, with this sanitised, filtered, carefully presented substitute. That’s a dangerous thing, because you’re still going to be the real you. You’ll inevitably fail to live up to others’ expectations of your public face, and they’ll certainly tell you about it. You’ll be the one who bears the fallout.
The other danger is that you’ll (perhaps unintentionally) create an image that’s unflattering. I’d have to raise my hand and lay claim to that one myself, I think. Online, I’m strongly, definitively opinionated, sarcastic by default, egocentric, narcissistic, quick to complain, and reluctant to accept criticism. There are no doubt many people who think that I’m a fairly unpleasant character. Maybe fun to listen to, or retweet, but not somebody you’d want to deal with in real life. The blame for that lies with me, because I’m the one who invented that person.
The real me is different. If you read my pieces on this site at least semi-regularly, you probably have some sense of that. The tone you most often hear in my words - contemplative, introspective - is much closer to my true inner voice. The only distinction is how damned well-put-together and calm it sounds. That part is another construct.
In real life, I take a while to arrive at my opinions, and I’m cautious about them - and not because I’m embracing the intellectual ideal of constant re-assessment in the face of new information. Actually, it’s because I’m always afraid that I just don’t know enough to choose a position. I’m also afraid that you’ll find that out, and I’ll look like a fool.
I’m not didactic in real life, though I like to lecture or rant as much as the next man (gendered noun deliberately chosen). Actually, I’ve been in a constant, low-level state of worry for the last twenty years about how emotionally immature I feel, and how I lack what I see as a normal level of interest in important issues. I’d rather disappear into stories than try to accept what’s going on in the real world. But I don’t feel that my position is credible, so I try to get by as best I can.
I’m not really an adult in real life, even though I’m in my mid-thirties, married, and afforded every privilege that society provides. Actually, I spend most of my time unhealthily preoccupied with fantasy, alternate possibilities, and daydreaming. I get tense when we’re out somewhere socially, and the conversation turns to history, or politics, or finance, or any of a host of other topics. I’m supposed to know about those things, but I barely know enough to hold an opinion. The worst part is that, when I’m asked for my view, people listen. My voice carries weight. It shouldn’t.
I’m not egocentric, narcissistic, or self-possessed in real life. Oh ye gods no. Just give me a moment to stop laughing, or crying, or whatever this is. Actually, my mind is a pretty dark place at times. I remember one day when I was a boy - perhaps nine or ten years old - and the weather was glorious; sunshine, blue skies, heat. My mother was out with the lawnmower, cutting the grass. She’d already done the rear of the house, and now she’d moved to the twin smaller areas of grass at the front. For whatever reason, I’d written a sort of diary entry (I didn’t keep a diary; it was a one-off) on a couple of sheets of a yellow, spiral-bound reporter’s notebook. It was about how unattractive I thought I was. The details are lost to memory, but I do recall that the tone was more confession than complaint. I walked around with that thing folded up in my pocket for weeks.
Kids do things like that sometimes, I think. It doesn’t have to really mean anything; they’re just still figuring out who they are, and what’s expected, and how to be people. I mean, more so than I’m still trying to, even now. But that dark thought has always been there. I’m a deeply insecure person. I have the usual hang-ups about skills or talents: wit, creativity, use of language - but I’ve never been able to find peace about the really personal stuff. Appearance, attractiveness, deservingness, value… I’m filled with doubts, all the time. To a broken degree.
I can write something and see it read by hundreds of thousands of people, and not spend much time second-guessing the work. I can get up on stage and talk to a full auditorium, and I won’t get more than healthily nervous about it. I’m fortunate in that regard - and I truly mean lucky. It’d be so much more consistent if I was a basket case about public speaking, or sharing my words - but I seem to have found confidence there. It’s the other stuff that’s a daily battle; the inside, really-you stuff.
There are days where it feels like I have my eyes screwed shut, arms just flailing, trying to keep those insecurities and doubts at bay. There are days when struggling is just about all I can do.
You’re probably similar, at least in some respects. The you that you project online (or at work, or when you’re in the pub) is just a version, and a paper-thin one too. The human equivalent of a well-crafted biography, no more than two paragraphs please.
My online persona is largely an act, in the sense that it’s a tiny subset of the internal reality I live with each day. My inner self is a very different creature from the image I project. That won’t come as a surprise, because it’s something we all do.
Sometimes it’s because we want to seem like more - more confident, more intelligent, more successful, or more wealthy. But I think it’s usually because we want to seem less broken.
My switch in career from software development to writing has been a lesson in humility. My income has all but disappeared, the invitations to speak at conferences have dried up, and my inbox can lie empty for hours on end. One of those versions of Matt Gemmell ceased to be, and everything built on top of it was quick to follow.
It’s brought clarity, though. It’s been a cleansing experience. It’s stripped me back to the bare essentials, and forced me to consider what’s left - where the common threads of truth lie, amongst the façades. In fact, that was the real lesson: that it’s all about truth.
Finding it, and at least acknowledging it, before you decide what to do. By all means go ahead and use that insight to craft another convincing illusion; at least it’ll be based on something real, rather than the expectations of others, or your own fears and insecurities. Maybe we can heal by admitting that we’re all pretending.
Maybe I’ll learn how to do that.
For the moment, the truth will have to do - and look at how shoddy and unsatisfying a picture it is. A man who claims to love mirrors, and will send a selfie at every opportunity, but who, in the deepest hours of the night, couldn’t bear to look at them. Someone who has perhaps begun to wilfully forget where the boundaries of his own fiction lie.
This is exactly why we have our illusions; our authors, and our screenwriters. Our sanitised, filtered, carefully presented substitutes.
Our brief biographies, and our black-and-white profile photographs.
Not because they enhance, but because they hide.