The Made-Up Self

Monday, April 2, 2012

This is the first in a series of three nonfiction craft essays adapted for TriQuarterly Online from the panel “The Persona in Personal Narrative: Crafting the Made-Up Self,” originally presented at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference on March 2nd, 2012.

The idea that personal essayists and memoirists construct a persona would seem to be self-evident. In The Made-Up Self, Carl H. Klaus has given us an excellent, nuanced, and very useful elaboration of that historical process. I myself once wrote an essay with a similar argument, titled “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character,” and so I was delighted when I read Klaus’s book—delighted enough to blurb it, I might add. And yet, asked to speak about this self-evident phenomenon today, I find myself hesitating and entertaining objections. Why is that? Am I such a contrarian that I must argue with my own understanding and the collective wisdom of my fellow panelists? There is that, but I think it goes further. I do not remember ever having concocted this made-up self; I can’t recall the night when, like Geppetto fabricating his Pinocchio, I stayed up late and finished off the puppet that would stand in for me.

On the contrary: what impresses and appalls me is how little I seem to be able to change my everyday personality, not to mention my writing style. I have been writing with literary intent for half a century, and for the most part, my “I” persona has remained fairly constant. Even the papers I wrote in college show many traces of characteristic syntactical constructions, tones of voice, argumentation, and strategies that have followed me around and still infect my writing. When you add to that the fact that I continue to make the same interpersonal mistakes in my domestic life, in my friendships, in my handling of students, despite the immense embarrassment they have caused me and the pain they have caused others, I really have to wonder how much is in my control and how much is out of it.

The United States has often been characterized as a generator of self-invention. How could it be otherwise, when so many immigrants cut their ties with the social stratification of the Old Country and began what they hoped was a new, more fluid life, aiming to fulfill their dreams on these shores? Nineteenth-century America saw a plague of con artists who passed themselves off as counts and dukes, in the absence of a national aristocracy: they were just the gaudiest representatives of the tendency toward self-invention that enveloped large swatches of the population. So yes, we as a people are receptive to the idea of a made-up self. Contrast that with Europe, where the very idea that one has a self, made-up or otherwise, is contested. Continental cultural criticism seems more inclined to view the self as a social construct, an aggregate of mass media inputs and political indoctrinations. In this regard I instinctively side with the American viewpoint: yes, I am an individual and I damned sure have a self, which I rely on with comfort and consolation—though, come to think of it, I can’t quite recall how I came by it.

Many people like to think that they are radically different from their parents—that they took a separate path of self-invention, so to speak, sometime around adolescence. I consider this posture arrogant and ungrateful. Like it or not, I see both my parents when I look in the mirror, and their genes, their habits, even their lousy posture have taken up room in me. Certainly, I am not the same as my parents, or my siblings, but even taking into consideration the extent that I rebelled against them, they set the template for my personality. My father had wanted to write; I became a writer.

When I sit down to write, I hear a voice in my head. Who sent me that voice? Did I “fabricate” it? If I did, I can’t remember. In my case (pace Tom Larson), the voice is singular. I don’t hear voices; at this stage of life I’m too rigid and set in my ways, and so it tends to be the same damn voice jabbering on. All I know is that I keep listening for the voice to surprise me, say something out of the ordinary, provocative, mischievous, even borderline dangerous. I go along in a civilized manner, generating reasonable discourse, and then I start to get bored. Hence my love of contrariness. It’s not that I’ve “made up” a contrarian or curmudgeonly persona, but that my physiological restlessness, my low tolerance for boredom, my neurotic antipathy to sentimentality all dictate that I throw in a dash of paradox, humorous chagrin, or spite. I wait to pounce with glee on some received truth. Meanwhile I record what the voice is telling me—not everything, I do refuse some inanities, but in the main I overwrite at this initial stage because I am taking down all that dictation, and so I end up having to cut back. It’s really only at the editing stage that I can truthfully say I am constructing or fabricating an object. I am “making a hat,” as Stephen Sondheim says.

Now, the selection that occurs in the editing process has less to do with concocting a persona from scratch than with tweaking it—“it” being the familiar voice that I have been taking dictation from, lo these many years. Some factors that go into my suppressions and augmentations are the tonal and political values of the organ that commissioned the piece from me (or that I hope to solicit, if I am writing this on spec); the word count or page limitations; and the social fear upon discovering that I have written, perhaps inadvertently, something that could piss off a segment of the population. I like to take chances, but I am not an utter fool. In any event, even with the most pusillanimous corrections, I expect there will be readers who get angry at what I have written. Experience has taught me that there is no way I can shield myself in advance from giving offense to someone.

I hope these remarks will be accepted in the gentle spirit in which they are offered: as a mild demurral in the face of a new consensus. It’s true that we make up our selves from moment to moment—as is readily apparent from observing the cocktail parties and receptions at this AWP convention—but it is also true that we have far less leeway in remaking ourselves and our personae on the page than we might first imagine.