MONTPELIER, VERMONT — To what extent is the “I” a writer puts down the page truly that writer? It’s a question that has long vexed personal essayists, in particular since Michel de Montaigne went about as far as any writer could in examining every aspect of himself in his prose. Vermont College of Fine Arts instructor Patrick Madden is an acolyte of Montaigne–he’s developing a “merit badge” with Montaigne’s face on it that middle schoolers can earn if they read personal essays–and in his lecture here at our MFA in Writing residency he walked us through the thoughts of many great writers on this subject.
It is a question I wrestle with as a blogger.
Madden’s lecture–like a great personal essay–raised a lot of intriguing questions but didn’t pretend to have all of the answers. That’s what I do here at The Artist’s Road as well. I’d like to take a moment to build on Madden’s lecture and discuss how this question of who is the persona in a personal essay is of interest to every blogger and blog reader.
I tell my blogging class students that a compelling blog post follows the same basic rules as a personal essay. I cite heavily in my curriculum materials Phillip Lopate’s introduction to his collection The Art of the Personal Essay, and, not surprisingly, Madden in his lecture cited Lopate as well. Based on Lopate’s guidance, I encourage students to reveal their weaknesses in their blog posts, even when writing professionally geared blogs. Even the slightest admission of uncertainty or error by the writer creates a level of trust with the reader.
But Lopate also writes that, if one wishes, this technique can allow the writer to withhold secrets without creating a sense of falseness. Lopate quotes Alexander Smith–a quote Madden also cited in his lecture–saying “If you wish to preserve your secret, cloud it in frankness.”
That smacks of dishonesty, you might say. Perhaps. But I point this out because very few people are in a position with a blog to expose any and all secrets and flaws to the world. I would add that few readers necessarily want to see all of those secrets and flaws. And let’s go a step further. Could we ever possibly capture every aspect of ourselves in words anyway?
Madden quotes Carl Klaus as saying that the “I” on the page is a “written construct, a fabricated thing, a character of sorts.” The writer’s voice is a result of chosen words and details, so you could argue that this “character” is fictional, at least in that it is not fully complete, and thus not fully “true.”
But Madden points out that we do not even fully know our own “I.” “We can never truly know ourselves,” he says, although the process of writing about ourselves helps us inform us of who we are, and can even change our own life story.
A personal essay, Madden said, is a conversation with the reader. And so is a blog. When I read a blog, I want to get to know the blogger, in any way that is relevant to me. If it’s a blog, say, about the author’s love of antique maps, I want to know what it is that stimulates her love for ornate compass roses and depictions of imagined islands. But I don’t need to know that her marriage is failing, that she sometimes imagines abandoning her children and moving to Fiji, or that she lost her virginity on prom night. It comes down to selecting the details, as Klaus would say.
Those details selected should still, when compiled, reflect the true nature of the author, to the extent the author knows or understands her true nature. Madden’s lecture forced me to examine the persona I present here on The Artist’s Road, to see if I consider it authentic. Madden said a friend of his read his essay collection, Quotidiana (which I highly recommend), and said it was like having a conversation with Madden. You don’t know me like Madden’s friend knows him, but that intimacy of conversation is what I aim for here.
I consider my Artist’s Road persona to be a man who is intellectually curious, sincere, respectful, at times generous, at times insecure, and at times boastful (as insecure people often are). Is that who I am in “real life”? I am not the best judge of that; my wife probably could provide a more honest assessment. But, as I look at that description, I see a man I’d like to be.
So perhaps when blogging, or writing a personal essay, we are projecting our best “I,” the “I” we would like to be.
“We possess a core reality of ourself,” Madden quotes Lopate as saying (I believe from The Art of the Personal Essay introduction, my blogging class lode stone). If we embrace that core, and ensure we are projecting it when we blog, I believe we can safely assume we are being as authentic as we can with our readers. Our readers will recognize that authenticity, and engage.
So to those who struggle with putting the “I” in their blog posts–and that has very much been me, so it is not surprising it is such a big part of my blog curriculum–it’s really not that hard. You choose what is to be shared; just ensure what is being shared paints an authentic portrait of your core you.
Anyone who has made it to this point reads blogs, and I suspect many of you write them. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role of “I” in a blog, and what role that “I” plays in your choosing to return to a blog.