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On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character - P. Lopate

Phillip Lopate

On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character

In personal essays, nothmg is more commonly met than the letter I. I think it a perfectly good word. one no writer should be ashamed to use. Especially is first person legitimate for this fonn, so drawn to the particulars of character and voice. The problem with "l" is nor that it is in bad taste, but that fledg­ ling personal essayists may think they've said or conveyed more than they actually rove with that one syllable. in their minds, that "I" is swarming with background and a lush, sticky past. and an almost too fatal specificity, whereas the reader, encountering it for the first time in a new piece. sees only a slender telephone pole standing in the sentence, trying to catch a few signals to send on. In truth, even the barest "1" holds a whisper of promised engagement, and can suggest a caress in the midst of more stolid language. What it doesn't do. however, is give us a clear picture of who is speaking.

To do that, the writer needs to build herself into a character. And I use the word character much the same way the fiction writer does. E.M. Forster, m Aspects of the Novel, drew a famous dis­tinction between "flat" and "round" characters-between those fictional personages seen from the outside who acted v.ith the predicable consistency of caricatures, and those whose complexities or teeming inner lives we came to know. But whether the writer chooses to present characters as flat or round, or a combination, the people on the page-it scarcely matters whether they appear in fic­ tion or nonfiction-will need to become knowable enough in their broad outlines to behave "believably," at the same time as free willed enough to intrigue us with surprises. The art of charac­ terization comes down to estabhshing a pattern of habits and actions for the person you are writing about and mtroducing variations into the system. In this respect, bUilding a character is a peda­gogic model, because you are teaching the reader what to expect.

So how do you tum yourself into a character? First of all, you need to have-or acquire-some distance from yourself. If you are so panicked by any e:xamination of your flaws that all you can do is sputter defensively when you feel yourself attacked, you are not going to get very far in the writing of personal essays. You need to be able to see yourself from the ceiling: to know, for instance, how you are coming across in social situations, and to assess accurately when you are charming, and when you seem pushy, mousy, or ridiculous. From the viewpoint of honest essay writing, it is just as unsatisfactorily distorting to underrate yourself all the time, and think you are far less effective than you actually are. than to give yourself too much credit. The pOint is to begin to take inventory of yourself so that you can present that self to the reader as a specific, legible character.

A good place to start is your quirks. These are the idiosyncracies, stubborn tics, antisocial man­nerisms, and so on that set you apart from the majority of your fellowmen. There will be more than enough time later to assen your common humanity, or better yet, to let the reader make the mental bridge berween your oddities and those of everyone else. But to establish credibility, you would do well to resist coming across at first as absolutely average. Who wants to read abom that bland crea­ ture, the regular Joe? The mistake many beginning essayists make is to try so hard to be likable and nice, to fit in, that the reader, craving stronger stuff (at the very least, a tone of authority), gets bored. Literature IS not a place for conformists, organization men. The skills of the kaffeeklatsch­ restrainmg one's expressiveness, rounding out one's edges, sparing everyone's feelings-will not work as well on the page.

The irony is that most of us suspect-no. we know-that underneath it all we are common as din. But we may still need to maximize that pitiful set of quirks, those small differences that seem to set us apart from others, and project them theatrically, the way actors work with singularities in their physical appearances or vocal textures. In order to tum ourselves into characters, we need to dramatize ourselves. I don't mean inventing or adding colorful traits that aren't true; I mean posi­tioning those that are already in us under the most clearly focused. sharply defined light. It's a sub­tractive process: you need to cut away the inessentials, and highlight just those features in your personality that lead to the most intense contradictions or ambivalence.

An essay needs conflict, JUST as a short Story does. Without conflict, your essay will drift into static mode, repeating your mltial observation in a self-satisfied way. What gives an essay dynamism is the need to work out some problem, especially a problem that is not easily resolved. Fortunately, human beings are conflicted animals. so there IS no shortage of tensions that won't go away. Good essayists know how to select a topic in advance that will generate enough spark in itself, and how to frame the topic so that it will neither be too ambitious nor too slight-so that its scale will be appropriate for satisfying exploration, If you are serenely unconflicted when you first sit down to write an essay, you may find yourself running Out of steam. If you take on a problem that is too philosophlcally large or historically convoluted, you may choke on the details and give up.

Still. these are technical issues, and 1am inclined to think that what stands in the way of most personal essays is not technique but psychology: The emotional preparedness. if you will, to be honest and open to exposure.

The student essayist is tom between two contrasting extremes:

A. "1 am so weird that 1could never tell on the page what is really, secretly going on in my mind."

B. "1 am so boring, nothing ever happens to me out of the ordinary, so who would want to read about me?"

Both extremes are rooted in shame, and both reflect a lack of worldliness. The first response ("I am so weird") exaggerates how isolated one is in one's "wicked" thoughts, instead of recognizing everyone has strange, surreal, immoral notions. The second response ("My life is so boring or I'm so boring") requires a reeducation so that the student essayists can be brought to acknowl­edge just those moments in the day, in their loves and friendships, in their family dynamics, in historical moments, in their interactions with the natural world, that remain genuinely per­plexmg, vexing, luminous, unresolved. In short, they must be nudged to recognize that life remains a mystery-even one's own so-called boring life. They must also be taught to recognize the charm of the ordinary: that daily life that has nourished some of the most enduring essays.

The use of literary or other models can be a great help in invoking life's mystery 1 like to remmd myself, as well as my students, of the tonal extremes available to us. It is useful to know we can rant as much as Dostoyevsky's Underground Man or Celine's narrators, that we can speak-as the poet Mayakovski says-"At the Top of My Voice." That we can be passionate as Hazlitt and Baldwm, or even whine, the way Joan Didion sometimes does, albeit with self-aware humor. It is useful to remind students, enamored of David Lynch or Quentin Taramino movies, that some of that bizarre sensibility can find a place in their essays-that "outlaw" culture does not have to be left outside the schoolhouse. At the same time, it is necessary to introduce them to the sane, thoughtful, considered, responsible essayists like George Orwell or E.B. White, From both sets of models we can then choose how reasonable or hysterical we want to come across at any time: in one pIece, seem the soul of reason; in another, a step away from the loony bin.

Mining our quirks is only the beginning of turning ourselves into characters. We are distin­guishing one from another as much by our pasts, the set of circumstances we are born into, as by the challenges we have encountered along the way, and how we choose to resolve them, given our stations in life. It means something very different to have been born the second-oldest boy in an upper-middle-class Korean family that emigrated from Seoul to Los Angeles than to have been born the youngest female in a poor Southern Baptist household of nine.

Ethnicity, gender, religion, class, geography, politics: these are all strong determinants in the development of character. Sometimes they can be made too much of, as in the worst kind of "iden­tity politics," which seeks to explain away all the intangibles of a human being's destiny by this or that social oppression. But we must be bold in working with these categories as starting points: be not afraid to meditate on our membership in this or that community, and the degree to which It has or has not formed us.

When you are writing a memoir, you can set up these categories and assess their imponance one by one, and go on from there. When you write personal essays, however, you can never assume that your readers will know a thing about your background, regardless of how many times you have explained it in previous essays. So you must become deft at inserting that information swiftly and casually-"l was born in Brooklyn, New York, of working-class parents"-and not worry about the fact that it may be redundant to your regular readers, if you're lucky enough to have any. In one essay. you may decide to make a big thing of your religious training and very little of your family background: in another, just the opposite; but in each new essay, it would be a good idea to tell the reader both. simply because this son of information will help to build you into a character.

In this sense. the personal essayist must be like a Journalist. who respects the obligation to get in the basic orienting facts-the who, what, where, when, and why-as close to the top of every story as possible.

So now you have sketched yourself to the reader as a person of a certain age, sex, ethnic and religious background. class,and region, possessing a set of quirks, follies, strengths, and peculiarties. Are you yet a character? Maybe not: not until you have soldered your relationship "With the reader, by springing vividly into his mind, so that everything your "I" says and does on the page seems somehow-oddly-piquantly-characteristic. The reader must find you amusing (there, I've said it). Amusing enough to follow you, no matter what essay topic you propose. Whether you are writing this time on world peace or a bar of soap, readers must sense qUickly from the first para­graph that you are gomg to keep them engaged. The trouble is that you cannot amuse the reader unless you are already self-amused. And here we come to one of the main stumbling blocks placed before the writing of personal essays: self-hatred.

It is an observable fact that most people don't like themselves, in spite of being, for the most part, decent enough human beigs-certainly not war criminals-and in spite of the many self-help books urging us to befriend and think positively about ourselves. Why this self-dislike should be so prevalent is a matter that would require the best sociological and psychoanalytic minds to elucidate; all I can say, from my vantage point as a teacher and anthologist of the personal essay, is that an odor of self-disgust mars many performances in this genre and keeps many would-be practitioners from developing into full-fledged professionals. They exhibit a form of stuttenng, of never being able to get past the inital superficial self-presentation and diving into the wreck of one's personality with gusto.

The proper alternative to self-dislike is not being pleased with oneself-a smugness equally distasteful to the reader-but being curious about oneself. Such self-curiosity (of which Montaigne, the father of the essay. was the greatest exemplar) can only grow out of that detachment or distance from oneself about which I spoke earlier.

I am convinced that self-amusement is a discipline that can be learned; it can be practiced even by people (such as myself) who have at times a strong self-dislike or at least self-mistrust. I may be tired of myself in everyday life, but once I start narrating a situation or set of ideas on the page, I begin to see my "I" in a comic light. and I maneuver him so that he will best amuse the reader. My "I" is not me, entirely, but a character drawn from aspects of myself in somewhat the same way (less stylized or bold, perhaps) that Chaplin drew the Uttle Fellow or Jerry Lewis modeled the arrested-development goofball from their experiences. I am willing to let my "I" take his pratfalls; maintaining one's dignity should not be a paramount issue in personal essays. But first must come the urge to entertain the reader. From that lmpulse everything else follows.

There is also considerable character development in expressing your opinions, prejudices, half­ baked ideas, etc., etc., provided you are willing to analyze the flaws in your thinking and to enter­tain arguments against your hobbyhorses and not be too solemn about it all. The essay thrives on daring, darting flights of thought. You must get in the habit of inviting, not censoring, your most far-fetched, mischievous notions, because even if they prove cockeyed, they may point to an ele­ment of truth that would otherwise be inaccessible. When, for instance. I wrote my essay "Against Joie de Vivre," I knew on some level that it was an indefensible position, but I wanted to see how far I could get in taking a curmudgeonly stance against the pursuit of happiness And indeed, it struck a chord of recognition in many readers because lots of us are "so glad to be unhappy," at least as much as we "want to be happy." (To quote two old songs.)

Finally, it would do well for personal essayists to follow another rule of fiction writers, who tell you that if you want to reveal someones character, actions speak louder than words. Give vour "I" something to do. It's fine to be privy to all of "I"'s ruminations and cerebral nuances, but conciouness can only take us so far in the illumination of character. Particularly if you are writ­ing a memoir essay, with chronology and narrative, it is often liberating to have the "I" step beyond the observer role and be implicated crucially in the overall action. How many memoir pieces suffer from a self-righteous setup: the writer telling a Story in which Mr. or Ms. "I" is the passive recipient of the world's cruelty, the character's first exposure to racism or betrayal, say. There is something off-putting about a nonfiction story in which the "1" character is right and all the others wrong, the "I" infinitely more sinned against than sinning. By showing our complicity in the world's stock of sorrow, we convince the reader of our reality and even gain his sympathy.

How much more complicated and alive is George Orwell's younger self, the "1" in "Such, Such Were the Joys" for having admitted he snitched on his classmates, or James Baldwin's "I" in "Notes of a Native Son," for acknowledging how close he came to the edge with his rages about racism in restaurants. Character is not just a question of sensibility: there are hard choices to be made when a person is put under pressure. And it's in having made the wrong choice, curiously enough, that we are made all the more aware of our freedom and potential for humanity. So it is that remorse is often the staning point for good personal essays, whose working-out brings the necessary self­ forgiveness (not to mention self-amusement) to outgrow shame.

1 have not touched on some other requirements of the personal essay, such as the need to go beyond the self's quandaries, through research or contextualization, to bring back news of the larger world. Nor have I spoken of the grandeur of the so-called formal essay. Yet even when "I" plays no part in the language of an essay, a firm sense of personality can warm the voice of the impersonal essay narrator. When we read Dr. Johnson and Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, for instance, we feel that we know them as fully developed characters in their own essays, regardless of their not referring personally to themselves.

The need thus exists to make oneself into a character, whether the essay uses a first- or third­- person narrative voice. 1would further maintain that this process of turning oneself into a character is not self-absorbed navel gazing, but rather a potential release from narcissism. It means you have achieved sufficient distance to begin to see yourself in the round: a necessary precondition to tran­ scending the ego---or at least writing personal essays that can touch other people.

DMU Timestamp: July 23, 2020 19:52

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