The Multiple Selves Within: Crafting Narrative Personae in Literary Memoir

Monday, April 9, 2012

This is the last 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.

In his recent book The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay, Carl Klaus maintains that “‘the person’ in a personal essay is a written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts.” I agree in spirit with Klaus’s view. Where we differ (though only slightly so) is that I see narrative personae not as made-up selves but rather as several different selves.


In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick writes,

The persona in a nonfiction narrative is an unsurrogated one. . . . The writing we call personal narrative is written by people who, in essence, are imagining only themselves. . . . Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being a narrator is fashioned. . . . This narrator becomes a persona [I prefer thinking that the narrator adopts a persona]. [Gornick continues:] 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,” underscores the difference between a straightforward retelling of an experience and crafting a narrator (or narrators) that best fits the story being told. As examples of what I mean, I’ll cite some decisions I struggled with while working on my memoir, Still Pitching.

First though, some background. The memoir’s time frame extends from 1947 to 1957, a period that baseball historians and hard core fans still refer to as “the golden age of New York baseball”— the city’s three professional baseball teams, the New York Yankees, Brooklyn Dodgers, and New York Giants, played in and sometimes won the World Series ten times in those eleven years. If you were an adolescent male growing up back then, you couldn’t avoid baseball whether you wanted to or not. Playing the game was, in effect, a male rite of passage, like schoolyard fights and boasting about fabricated sexual conquests.

The narrative centers on how this young boy, someone his high school classmates thought of as a nebbish, manages—through a mix of determination, tenacity, force of will, and desperation—to make himself into a successful, well-recognized baseball pitcher.

An initial 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 that baseball-obsessed kid into a midlife writer. But a more insistent need was the desire to craft that state of affairs into an aesthetically satisfying memoir. The first challenge was finding the most appropriate narrator for this story. Or, as it turned out, the most appropriate narrators.

During the early stages of composing, I discovered that Still Pitching, by necessity, needed not one but three narrative personae; the author, whom Bill Roorbach refers to as “the writer at the desk”; the adult narrator, a spinoff, surrogate, stand-in—call him what you will—who’s looking back at a younger incarnation of himself; and the adolescent “I.” As the memoir’s de facto narrator, the adolescent boy has the purpose of, as Gornick suggests, “serving the subject.” To that end, his thoughts and feelings are filtered through the adult narrator’s sensibilities.

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 who he is. Here, in order for the adult persona to allow himself (and the reader) access to the boy’s inner life, he had to shape that younger self into a three-dimensional character. Which meant that in addition to painting an accurate portrait of that particular time and place—New York City in the 1950s—the adult persona had to imagine (not invent, not make up) who that kid was and what compelled him to pursue his most important hopes and dreams.


Just as in everyday life we laugh and cry, show anger and sadness, so, too, for personal essayists and memoirists, one voice is rarely enough. Memoirists, for example need different voices in order to reveal the complexity of a life. You may need to twine a child voice with an adult voice; a lyric voice with a comic voice; a sober voice with an out-of-control voice. In other words, there are several “me(s)” that make up the whole story. —Sue William Silverman


Curiously enough, it was only after Still Pitching came out that I began thinking more seriously about multiple personae. A few months after the book’s publication, I received an e-mail from Ted Mahan, baseball coach at Michigan State University, a man I knew of but had never met. In his e-mail the coach said, “I finished reading your book Still Pitching and loved it. Thanks for writing about your youth; that took some courage. If you are around this spring we would love to have you attend a game and throw out a first pitch. I want to see if you can still throw.”

This raised an interesting dilemma. Being a former athlete, my knee-jerk response was to take the coach up on his last-line challenge. And in time, I was able to do just that. But my memoirist-self wanted to tell him straight on that it didn’t take any courage at all to write about my youth. In fact, whenever I managed to write a graceful sentence or render a telling sensory detail, I’d experience an exhilarating, yet fleeting, sense of accomplishment, somewhat similar, I might add, to the momentary satisfaction I used to feel when I’d come up with a pitching strategy to befuddle a good hitter.

Moreover, I wanted to explain that I chose particular scenes and situations largely because they served the narrative. And I was even thinking of telling him that the kid pitcher in the memoir wasn’t really me. He was a version of me, to be sure, but a character nevertheless—a character, in fact, I’d constructed in part though memory and imagination.


"I like to think of persona this way: nested-doll image, author inside, covered with narrator, who is covered by the persona. I also like to use nouns to characterize a persona; as E. B. White says, 'The essayist arises in the morning and . . . can . . . be any sort of person . . . philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil’s advocate, enthusiast.'" —Kim Kupperman


A few weeks later I received a similar e-mail, this one from Tom Watson, a former writing student, now himself a writer. In it, he said, “I admired the guts it took to bare your soul as you did.” Tom’s and the coach’s comments reminded me once again of just how difficult it is to teach my students the distinction between crafting their narrators as appropriate personae and contending, as they often do, that the narrator was “really me” and the events being described “really did happened that way.”

Here, then, is a paraphrase of what I said in my e-mail to Tom:

Actually, it didn't feel like I was baring my soul. As the adult persona looking back on a younger version of himself, I was trying to get inside that adolescent boy’s head and describe, even evoke, what he was thinking and feeling. And to accomplish that, the adult “I” had to imagine, among other things, how the boy’s mind and imagination worked. What were his deepest yearnings, passions, and fears? What major changes did he experience from ages twelve to seventeen? How did he cope with disappointment and failure? Where did his resilience and determination come from? And, more specifically, how and why did he put up with the deliberately cruel and humiliating treatment he received from his early coaches?

I went on to say that for the entire time I was writing the memoir, I thought of myself first as “the writer at the desk” and then as the adult narrator inhabiting an earlier version of himself. Moreover, as the “writer at the desk” (even that’s a persona of sorts), I wasn’t aiming for a literal rendering of my childhood and adolescence. By utilizing multiple narrative selves, I was trying to imagine and reflect on what it felt like to be that character, that wannabe-kid-pitcher growing up in New York in the 1950s.


Imagination doesn’t simply mean making things up; it means being able to understand things from the inside, emotions, events and experiences that you haven’t actually been through but that you will have experienced by the time you’ve got them onto the page. —David Malouf


One reason I write literary memoir is to find out things I don’t understand about myself, especially in relation to the confusing world I live in. At the same time, the memoirist in me is consciously using his childhood/adolescent experiences as raw materials for crafting a compelling, cohesive narrative.

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 own case, I remember it in the context of urgently having to write about that young boy while simultaneously attempting to make some larger sense out of his struggles.

And that’s a much different undertaking from relating the story to old friends over a drink—or writing it simply because it happened.