This is the second 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.
I was away on a writing retreat this January, the first time since my husband Stu died last August that I was able to push away the loss and sense of chaos and feel more like a self I remembered. I vowed not to do e-mail, but like Adam biting the apple, I did it anyway. “Did you pay your quarterly taxes on time?” my accountant wrote. What quarterly taxes? Stu paid taxes in April, I thought. And again, the world I’d been hobbling together was splitting apart. I hit ’Reply’ and hesitated. Who was I at this moment? The helpless widow barely holding on? Which I felt. The furious dowager ready to fire someone? Which I felt. The woman you can’t reach? Very tempting. I started writing:
. . . I am very disappointed to hear about the taxes, especially since I wrote you several times last fall about what I need to be doing. I’m away until Sunday, but am hoping we can set up an appointment next week to put a better system in place. Given your long history with Stu, I know he would assume that you would make that happen.
The “I” sounded so calm, so in command. No one I had planned on, and yet here “she” was—and I liked her. So did Howard, who wrote back, promising a help session on Monday morning, free of charge. Even better, I went back to writing for six more days, thinking, “To hell with taxes.” It was a nonchalance I had not managed in five months.
In Jungian terms, a persona is a public mask that doesn’t represent the inner personality of an individual. The implication is that a false external self, carefully constructed, hides the real self, the one at home in pajamas. Maybe in a society with a wider gulf between desire and social expectation, but not growing up in my America. I think of my mother, deep in glumness, over her morning coffee—until the phone rang and a friend was on the line. Suddenly her face was all smiles, her voice lilting with positive energy that might fade as soon as she hung up, but not usually. The phone call seemed to rouse another self waiting below the glumness, who took over from the sulker. Everyone in the family teased her about her “phone-y smile.” Yes, a bad pun and bad strategy, plus we got it wrong. That smile had power, I realize now, calling forth a cheerful persona to challenge the glum one and get through the day despite dark mornings. It wasn’t a case of phony versus real; both personae had a fair share in the emotional turf. And like my unruffled e-mail persona co-opting the fragile widow and angry dowager, they influenced one another. That kind of interconnectivity, I would argue, leads to authenticity. My take-charge persona was not just a rhetorical ploy to get my accountant on my side; rather, it was a missing part of myself that I gratefully welcomed back.
As a writer of first-person nonfiction, both memoir and personal essays, I need to believe in multiple selves who are intimately connected as they rise up into different personas that compete to tell a particular story. If there is only one self, unchallenged as narrator, I’m more predictable; surprises are harder to come by. But when I imagine many Mimis responding to experience, tension gets into the writing. I don’t know who will win out and for how long (the others are always there, lurking), and that puts me on a roll, open to discovery and insight. So, for example, I realized that the unruffled e-mail persona saved my six-day retreat only when I began writing this presentation. As soon as I put the words down, I knew they were true: the e-mail persona had leaped from the page into my life—at least for six days.
Many people believe that journal writing, free from public pressure, reveals one’s true self, unguarded, unconstructed. Sometimes, perhaps, but I have only to reread my journal entries, especially those written during crises, to know how limited they are emotional and intellectually. In the 1970s I once wrote hundreds of pages as I went back and forth on the bus to therapy sessions in New York City. I was full of epic insights, brilliant, I thought, and put them away, convinced they would become the great American something. But a year later, I reread them and there was nothing there. Boring stuff. Not even I was interested in this self who was whiny, full of self-pity, and pompous in her certainty that everything she wrote was absolutely true.
I kept a journal again in the late 1980s when, out of the blue, Stu and I, at forty-seven and forty-eight, both fell mortally ill two weeks apart (his heart, my breast cancer). Again I used the journal to write how I felt—about death, fear, shock, and desperation—but this time I also wrote about what the hospital room looked like, and what the nurses said, and how the sun slanted in through the venetian blinds. It was these details, maybe 20 percent of the entries, that jumpstarted a memoir, the objects and bits of dialogue moving me beyond the fearful self and the weeping self and to the other selves, tough and funny, whom I’d forgotten. “Honey, no one ever died from laughing,” the nurse in intensive care said when I became alarmed to see the needle on Stu’s heart monitor swinging wildly. We’d been giggling about a Dr. Botch who was being paged to return immediately to the OR for surgery. Months later I reread it and remembered how we kept laughing, holding hands, and that’s when the story of illness began shifting to one of marriage. The persona who ended up with the lead role as narrator was not victim, nurse, or patient—though they were there—but a wife dealing with the ups and downs of a shared life.
It became a book, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, and the battle of me’s felt natural and intuitive as I wrote, more evolution than revolution as I moved from what Vivian Gornick calls “the situation” (what happened) to “the story” (what it meant). Not so when I tried to write an essay about an anti-Semitic incident at my college. I had not written much about being Jewish. I had never written about anti-Semitism—it took nine painful months to find the right persona to tell that story. As before, the struggle was inward, defining my relationship to my subject, but this time it was also outward, worrying about how colleagues, not just family, would receive me.
First I was an English professor deconstructing the symbolism of a pro-Palestinian poster. Then I was a crusader righting wrongs. Then I was the child of Holocaust survivors, avoiding my past until this moment. Then I was an assimilated American Jew who suddenly had to face a German past she had always avoided. Each beginning read smoothly—so it wasn’t about craft—but only the last one felt like the right persona for this particular story. It began:
For me as an American Jew—the child of German refugees—overt anti-Semitism was my parents’ old world, not mine. There’d be an occasional remark here and there, but everyone gets that in multi-ethnic New Jersey. No big deal, I thought, until 500 anti-Semitic flyers were posted on the walls and kiosks of the college where I’ve taught for twenty-two years. That was a shock. Some had swastikas leaning on Jewish stars. Some had a picture of Hitler and of an Israeli soldier, both of equal size. Its caption read: “How many millions must die?” Some had the Christ-like figure of crucifixion paintings, but instead of the expected cross, the arms were draped over a Jewish star. . .
Was that persona a construct, an invented “I” who was not truly me? Only if we define true as the first self to respond. My English professor lacked passion, and my angry crusader had not yet talked to colleagues or confronted her best friend, who defended the posters and later, after reading my draft and engaging in more discussion, signed up for a trip to Israel with a group of nuns over Christmas. “As penance,” she joked. She was glad she went and we’re still friends, thanks in part to the persona who persuaded her, a Catholic, to see my position, and persuaded me that was I being a little paranoid about some of the poster images. I doubt the angry crusader would have fared as well—and I believe she may have felt cheated and is waiting, ready to push hard for a lead role somewhere else. Still, when I reread that essay after publication, I felt “That’s how it was!” and was relieved, and others who were there said the same. That’s gold.
So far I’ve looked at persona from the inside out, as writer. But I’d like to end today as a reader, responding to I’s whom I meet only on the page. I can’t know the full battles of self that end with publication, but I want authors to show signs of them. Maybe in a stream-of-consciousness that lets me into the author’s head. Maybe in a shuttle between a voice of innocence (responding to the now) and a voice of experience (reflecting on what happened before). Maybe in a juxtaposition of essays, as Scott Russell Sanders does in his collection Secrets of the Universe: Scenes from the Journey Home. The first, called “Under the Influence,” is about the legacy of his father’s drinking for him and on this family, and his persona is as son, bearing the burden. The second, “Reasons for the Body,” has the same cast of characters—house, garage, driveway—but here he and his father are athletes, and his father’s drinking is only mentioned in half a sentence.
I love how one essay follows the other, a reminder that we are made up of many selves and each one can tell a story with the others pressing in, reminding and remembering, in wait for a turn. It’s when we hitch ourselves too closely to one self who seems to know it all, unhampered by the others who question, doubt, and challenge, that we are less likely to write what we don’t yet know about the rich complexity of our lives.