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Michael Steinberg's Blog--Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction

The Role of Persona in Crafting Personal Narratives

Blog Entry No. 4

In The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay, Carl Klaus maintains ‘the persona in a personal essay is a written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts.”

I agree in spirit. Where we differ slightly is, that to me, the narrator isn’t so much a made-up self but several different selves from which the writer selects the one (or ones) that best serves his/her intent.

In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick writes,

"Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being
a narrator is fashioned…This narrator becomes a persona…Its
tone of voice, its angle of vision, the rhythm of its sentence,
what it selects to observe and what to ignore are chosen to
serve the subject."

That last phrase, “to serve the subject,” points out the difference, I believe, between a writer who’s literally trying to recreate the specifics of a real-life experience and one who’s searching for a persona that best suits the story being told. Moreover, it’s a way of differentiating between a straightforward telling of a life story and shaping the raw materials of a life into a literary work.

To that end, I’ll cite some unplanned discoveries I made while writing my memoir, Still Pitching.

During the book’s early stages, I realized that, by necessity, the memoir, demanded not one, not two, but three interconnected narrative personae; the author, who writer Bill Roorbach calls, “the writer at the desk;” the adult narrator, the author’s stand-in; and, the adolescent “I,” a younger version of the adult. For all intents and purposes, that younger persona is the memoir’s central narrator. And his purpose, I should add, is, as Vivian Gornick said, “to serve the subject.”

A major impetus for writing Still Pitching was a nagging, later-life itch to explore, with the hope of better understanding the early influences that helped shape a bookish, baseball-obsessed kid into a mid-life writer. But an equally insistent need was my desire to craft the memoir into an aesthetically convincing text. And that of course begins with the choice of narrators.

As a memoirist, I believe that you can’t truly understand a character, especially one who’s a surrogate self, unless you can fully imagine (not invent, not make-up) who that kid was and how he views himself.

How, for example, does his mind and imagination work? What are his deepest yearnings, passions, fears? How does he cope with disillusion, disappointment and even failure?

To accomplish this, the adult narrator must provide readers with access to the young boy’s inner life. In other words, he has to be able to render that young boy as a three-dimensional self.

Shortly after Still Pitching came out, I received an email from Tom Watson, a former student. "I admire the guts it took to bare your soul as you did” Tom wrote.

His comments reminded me again of just how difficult it is to teach even my most advanced MFA students the distinction between crafting their narrators as appropriate personae in opposition to claiming that the “I”, the central narrator, is “the real-life me” and the events “really did happen that way.”

In reply, I wrote to Tom (I’m paraphrasing here) that I didn't really feel like I was baring my soul. As the adult narrator looking back on a younger version of himself, I was trying to get inside that adolescent boy’s head and imagine, speculate on what he might be thinking and feeling. And while I was writing the memoir, I told Tom, I thought of myself first as the author, “the writer at the desk,” and then the adult narrator looking back on (and inhabiting) an earlier version of himself.

At the end of my reply, I added that, I wasn't aiming for a literal rendering of my adolescence. I was trying to imagine and reflect on what it must have felt like to be that young boy, that driven, would-be-pitcher growing up in NY in the 50's.

Consequently, I understand what writer Pam Houston means when she says, “I’m not going to tell the story the way it happened. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it.”

In my case, I remember it in the context of urgently wanting to write about that young boy’s struggles and at the same time make some larger sense out of those internal conflicts And that’s a much different undertaking from writing a memoir simply because it happened.

Imagining narrators as multiple selves then, helps writers of narrative nonfiction to transform/ transpose the raw materials of a life into carefully constructed, aesthetically satisfying (hopefully) memoirs.

And isn’t that what all good literary writing—fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction-- is attempting to achieve?

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