How to Bring Your Voice to Life in Personal Essays

I remember well the self-doubts of my early writing career, when I felt completely unsure that I could ever write anything that was worthy of notice or publication.

One particular evening a few decades back, firm in my memory even now, I turned toward my wife, Renita, and moaned, “Oh, I’m just so average. Your typical guy with the typical tedious problems. Who wants to hear my story?”

My wife closed the book she had been reading and asked, “What do you mean?”

I whined some more, about an author who had just landed a big book deal. Ethnic memoirs were all the rage at that point in time and this writer had been raised by parents who once lived in Japanese internment camps. Then I complained a bit about another writer: Her father had been a diplomat, so she grew up all over the world, and at one point even survived a dangerous escape during a foreign coup d’etat.

“Me?” I whimpered. “My life is just about identical to every other Catholic white kid raised in the 1960s.”
At this point, Renita, bless her generous heart, nodded, smiled and said, “Well, then you should write about that.”

And she was right.

I was undervaluing my own singular nature and experience: Each person, each life, is distinctive, even if you didn’t grow up in a family of acrobats or spend 10 years sleeping alongside lions on the African veld. It’s not what happens to us in our lives that makes us into writers; it’s what we make out of what happens to us. It’s our distinctive point of view.

SELECT THE APPROPRIATE “SELF.”
The concept of persona is crucially important for writers of creative nonfiction to understand. Although the personal essay is a form of nonfiction, and thus the self you bring to your essay should be an honest representation of who you are, we are in fact made of many selves: our happy self, our sad self, our indignant self, our skeptical self, our optimistic self, our worried self, our demanding self, our rascally self and on and on and on. But in truth, if we attempt to bring all of these selves to every essay that we write, we run the risk of seeming so uncertain, so indecisive, that we merely confuse the reader.

Consistent and engaging personality on the page is often a case of choosing which “self” is speaking in a particular piece and dialing up the energy on that emotion or point of view. Henry David Thoreau likely had days when Walden Pond did not fill him with wonder and inspiration, but he knew enough to not share those tedious moments. They were beside the point. Or, to put it another way: Dithering is best left to first drafts, and then carefully edited away.

The goal is not to deceive the reader, to pretend to be someone that you are not, but rather to partially isolate a part of who you are, the you that you are today, as you meditate on a particular subject and sit down to write.

BE HONEST, BUT CLEAR.
The slogan of the literary journal Creative Nonfiction is, “You just can’t make this stuff up.” It’s effective, I believe, because of its double meaning. One meaning is that the truth is often stranger than fiction. The second meaning reminds the writer that in nonfiction, you are not just making stuff up.
So don’t fake it. Don’t act all pious on the page if you are not, in fact, a devout person. Don’t generate false outrage over something you don’t care that much about. Don’t be a hypocrite.
But you can highlight a particular trait, if it is in fact true to your nature, and shine a bright light upon it for a few pages, letting it take center stage.

Look at Robin Hemley’s introduction to his essay “No Pleasure But Meanness”:

I have a mean bone in my body. In fact, I think I have more than one mean bone. For instance, I hate people who smile all the time. It feels good to say that word, “hate,” doesn’t it? Would you like to try it? Say: “I hate people who ask rhetorical questions in essays that can’t possibly be answered.”

Hemley is being witty here, poking fun at himself and at his overuse of the rhetorical question. He is also signaling the reader that this essay will focus on that part of him that can be called “mean,” or critical.

I happen to know the author of this essay, and he is a very likable, extremely funny man. Yet he no doubt has his mean moments, times when the things that annoy him lead to testiness or sharp anger. We all have that side to us, I believe. Perhaps inspired by William Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating,”

Hemley is taking a moment in his own essay to explore that aspect of himself, closely and specifically.
The essay continues with the author lodging numerous complaints against folks who smile too much in photographs, against the checkout clerk at Walmart, against his kindergarten teacher—and though Hemley continues to leaven his bread of anger with humor and occasional winks to the reader, he does reveal a part of who he is honestly, clearly and with interest.

Another good example is Joan Didion, who begins her essay “In the Islands” with these two sentences:

I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind. I want you to understand exactly what you are getting: You are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people.

Well, you simply can’t get much clearer, or more honest, than that.

FIND THE UNIVERSAL YOU.
That slight aspect of your personality (or fantasy life, or hidden world) that you think so odd, so peculiar, so weird, that you’ve kept it a secret your entire life, is most likely far more common than you think. We’re all made of similar stuff, we human beings. Even our most closely guarded insecurities are often commonly held, though most individuals keep these parts of themselves so hidden that there’s little chance to discover the commonality.

But writers are different. We do share. And along the way readers come to an understanding that we are all very much alike.

The French essayist Michel de Montaigne devotes much of his essay “Of Repentance” to this notion of universality.

Consider these sentences:

Others form man; I only report him: and represent a particular one, ill fashioned enough, and whom, if I had to model him anew, I should certainly make something else than what he is: but that’s past recalling. … If the world find fault that I speak too much of myself, I find fault that they do not so much as think of themselves. But is it reason, that being so particular in my way of living, I should pretend to recommend myself to the public knowledge?

Here, Montaigne is addressing a bit of anticipated criticism. In modern parlance, that criticism might go like this: “Just who the heck do you think you are, Mr. Montaigne, to write about yourself all of the time? Shouldn’t you confine your writings to the vaunted geniuses and holy persons of past ages, instead of focusing all of the time on your own unproven self?” He goes on to say (in his now quite-dated syntax):
I have this, at least, according to discipline, that never any man treated of a subject he better understood and knew, than I what I have undertaken, and that in this I am the most understanding man alive: secondly, that never any man penetrated farther into his matter, nor better and more distinctly sifted the parts and sequences of it, nor ever more exactly and fully arrived at the end he proposed to himself. … I speak truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little the more, as I grow older; for, methinks, custom allows to age more liberty of prating, and more indiscretion of talking of a man’s self.

Montaigne is answering his critics by asserting (in my words now, not his): “Oh yeah, well let me tell you this much, buster. What I know best is my own self, and I know my own self really, really well, because I’m willing to study this subject and truly consider it in ways that others have not been willing to do. And if what I find is that I’m not so bloody perfect, well then I’ll tell you that. Because I’m too old to waste time and hide behind niceties. I’m looking for the truth.”

Montaigne, underneath all of the complex sentences and fancy language, is making a simple assertion. It’s his belief that if he captures a true portrait of himself, he’ll capture something universal, something recognizable to everyone.

Or, as he puts it elsewhere in the same essay: “… Every man carries the entire form of human condition.”

CHOOSE YOUR PERSONA WISELY.
Memoirist Sue William Silverman often receives letters and e-mail from readers, and recently she shared a fascinating reaction to some of the responses to her first two books, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick.

Silverman’s memoirs are deeply personal and honest about events and behaviors in the author’s past, and many of the notes Silverman finds in her mailbox say, in so many words, “I feel as if I know you.” In response to this, Silverman writes:

Both memoirs frequently elicit this response … even though both books are very different. What does Karen know about me? Marie? Karen knows what it was like for me to grow up in an incestuous family. Marie knows what it was like for me to recover from a sexual addiction. To Karen, the real me is one thing; to Marie, the real me is something, someone different. Even so, does this mean that all I am—as a writer and as a woman—is an incest survivor/sex addict? Is that it?

Silverman, of course, is far more than just that. She is a successful author, a respected teacher, a public speaker, a private person who has had countless challenges and experiences. Everything she has put into her memoirs is true, yes, but then again, neither of her books captures the entire person that she has been and that she is today.

Sometimes she herself wonders who this “Sue William Silverman” on the page really is, Silverman tells us, and she has reached the conclusion that readers are wrong to think that they know her:

… They know something about me, of course—but only what I choose to show in any given book or essay. It’s as if, with each new piece I write, a different “me,” or a different aspect of myself, is highlighted.

To make her point, she talks about an essay she is currently drafting, part of her collection-in-progress, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew.

When writing about Pat Boone, for example, I had to show how, since my Jewish father had molested me, it made sense that I’d seek out an overtly Christian man as a father figure. But I touched upon this incestuous background as briefly as possible, while, at the same time, implementing a much more ironic voice than that of my memoir. In effect, I removed the dark gray mask I wore while writing the memoir, and, for the essay, slipped on one that had as many sparkles as the red-white-and-blue costume Pat Boone wears in his concerts.

Had Silverman the writer attempted to bring her whole identity—her family past, her sexual addiction—into everything she has ever written, she would likely keep writing the same book or same essay over and over, and no one grows as a writer by merely repeating past work. Silverman is smart enough to know that.

Make sure you remember this as well.

 

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