“When I wrote my first memoir, Slow Motion, I came to think of my younger self as ‘that girl.’ Or sometimes even, ‘oh, that poor girl.’”
-Dani Shapiro, Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature
For writers of memoir, crafting a story we feel close to can be incredibly challenging.
Some temporal and/or emotional distance may be needed just to get through a rough first draft. We may also need psychological distance—a distancing from ourselves—to craft a character that can live and breathe on the page.
In The Situation and The Story, Vivian Gornick calls the creation of a persona—the character we craft based on the self— “the instrument of illumination” for nonfiction writers.
“Without it there is neither subject nor story,” she writes. “To achieve it, the writer of memoir or essay undergoes an apprenticeship as soul-searching as any undergone by novelist or poet: the twin struggle to know not only why one is speaking but who is speaking.”
In this craft article we’ll look at ways you can nurture the split between person and persona, and learn a few tricks to develop yourself as a character on the page.
How a distinct “story self” can help you write
For writers of memoir, the fear of exposure that goes along with revealing the private details of our lives can be intense, even paralyzing. Writing ourselves as characters who exist apart from us can help sidestep that very common fear.
“It’s not a trick,” writes Dani Shapiro. “Particularly in writing Slow Motion I had a willingness to reveal some unattractive, difficult, unethical, complex aspects of my own behavior…But I didn’t feel I was exposing myself; rather, I was creating that persona. That character.”
Making this helpful mental shift can prompt a positive emotional shift for memoir writers, too. A larger, more open-hearted understanding of our story becomes possible, I think, when you honor it from the point of view of an observer.
In that one-step-removed perspective of witness, we may find we appreciate the challenges we’ve faced with a compassion we may not normally allow ourselves, but would a dear friend.
Try writing your story in the third person
The “I’ voice isn’t the only perspective from which we can tell our stories. Writing from the point of view of “she/he/they” is an option creative nonfiction writers choose for various artistic reasons. Consider it a legitimate alternative to first-person narrative that can create the space needed to write more freely.
Try beginning a draft in the third person and switch to first-person later if it turns out the “I” voice feels right for the story. Or experiment with shifting POV from first to third if you’re feeling stalled or blocked in the revision process.
Writing in the third-person can be particularly helpful when writing about trauma. Not only did writing from the more detached perspective of “she” help me get a difficult story on the page, but it also felt more true to the story of the teen who was no longer me.
I now have names for two of my story personas. Stories about high school “me” are about Nikki, a name almost no one calls me these days. When I write about my childhood, I’m helping Nicolette (my grandfather’s nickname for me) tell her stories.
What is your character’s best quality—and fatal flaw?
The answer to this question may change, depending on the story you want to tell and which version of “you” is telling it—but both parts of the question are important.
If you identify your persona as an optimist with a stubborn streak, for instance, the events of the story won’t change—but how you tell your story will. You’ll focus your attention on how your story self processes a setback or loss with a deeper awareness of one key strength and weakness.
Approaching story in this way, you may just discover a brand new angle—perhaps an epiphany or revelation—as you view your story through fresh eyes, your persona’s unique lens.
Being mindful of one or two key personality traits can help you shape the story in other ways, too. You’ll have a clearer understanding of why your character behaves the way she does as she pursues what she wants, or doesn’t want. By playing up her traits in subtle ways you’ll be able to help your readers understand your character’s actions and reactions, and the choices she makes, as the story unfolds.
One final tip: don’t be afraid to turn up the volume on your character’s key traits in the service of your story.
“On paper I sound really manic and crazy,” observes Sandra Tsing Loh in Meredith Maran’s Why We Write About Ourselves. “My persona on the page is much quirkier than I am in real life.”
By isolating just a few characteristics of your complex personality to craft a persona and playing them up, you’re not somehow misrepresenting your true self. You’re simply using one more tool to tell a compelling story.
A few ideas for crafting a persona for your next story
- What is your persona called? Is it “that girl”, “he” or “they”—or maybe a nickname?
- Select two dominant traits, a strength and weakness, that will drive your persona’s decision-making in your story
- Observe how the traits you’ve chosen to emphasize impact the voice of your narrator— what they observe, how they perceive what’s happening, and the words they use to describe events
- Look at photos of yourself as an exercise in standing apart, viewing yourself at a specific moment in time. Use the details you observe—hairstyle, clothing, jewelry—to craft a more detailed and convincing sketch of your character on the page.
- The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick
- Why We Write About Ourselves: Twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature edited by Meredith Maran
Nicole Breit is the creator of Spark Your Story, a self-directed online writing program for new, emerging, and experienced life writers. An award-winning poet and essayist, Nicole lives and writes on British Columbia’s gorgeous Sunshine Coast. Her lyric essay, “An Atmospheric Pressure”, was selected as a Notable Essay by The Best American Essays 2017.