MFA Nugget: The Writer’s Persona in Essays and Blog Posts

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.

The not-so-quotidian Patrick Madden

The not-so-quotidian Patrick Madden

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.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

18 Responses to “MFA Nugget: The Writer’s Persona in Essays and Blog Posts”

  1. Patrick: I find your voice to be soothing, not boastful. This subject of first-person writing is enormously popular right now, because of the prominence of embedded/narrative nonfiction; therefore your timing is stellar. It’s also a subject dear to my heart as a memoir writer and blogger. I’ve tried many things on my blog, http://www.architecturetravelwriter.com, since starting it some 2 years ago, only to feel stiff or cloaked, and I’ve found the more honestly, the more conversational I make it, as your posts suggests, the more comfortable I am. Thanks for the little kick in the arse to get us bloggers to keep doing it. Don’t you too often find that bloggers are ultra-consumed with self-aggrandizement and selling some self-published book while, on the other hand, others concentrate on reading like a (non-literary) journal entry?
    BTW, always compelling to mention Montaigne!
    Cheers,
    @NicholeLReber

    • Hi Nichole, thank you so much for your kind words–I like being called soothing!–and for telling me I’ve helped with your blogging. Always happy to give a good kick in the arse!

      Yes, yes, yes, on your characterization of many of the blogs out there. Sigh.

  2. I keep two blogs. One that is hopefully is motivating for my high school literature students and one that is completely private. Is it a blog if no one reads it but me? In one, I try to write interesting tidbits for the students, the other is there because I from time to time fancy myself a writer. I use this second blog to get all the junk out and brainstorm before I get on to what I consider to be my more serious project. I’m not sure if either blog makes me a writer. I do know, for me, at least one of them is essential to my writing.

    That probably doesn’t answer your question but it’s an opinion.

    • If you’re writing you’re a writer. ‘Nuff said.

      Now it’s interesting you use a blog for getting the junk out. A lot of people journal, and blogging began in some respects as people journaling online, but only sharing with people they knew. So you’re not alone in what you’re doing there.

  3. I think there are two personas that come through in writing. One is the persona that the writer is intentionally projecting, the parts of perceived self that he wishes to project in order to make his point with his reader, and the other, one that the writer has little or no control over, and, depending upon the writer, that he may be more or less aware of. The two personas can be very close to one another or quite distant. Maybe this is simply a sign of my inexperience as a writer though.

    I have never blogged or written a non-fiction memoir. The closest I have come is some small amount of personal journaling in fits and starts. I tend to get bored with my own voice and frustrated with the dichotomy presented by my two personas who sometimes don’t get along very well.

    Interestingly (at least to me), I find that even in writing fiction, my author’s affect is greatly influenced by the intended audience. When participating in writing exercises with a community of mostly young men, I am more likely to write edgy, hard prose, and more often than not, I even write it from a male perspective. Somehow, all of that testosterone manages to transfer over the network and influence my work. When writing for an audience of women, my prose becomes softer, more overtly emotional. It isn’t intentional, it is what flows from my inner self. Both are sides of me that are emanating from my words, but neither in and of itself is me. The worst is when I actually try to write about myself in earnest. That is usually when the result is the furthest from the truth– who I want to be is so much stronger than who I am, and the shields defending my inner self are too impenetrable.

    • Wow, Michele, a lot of psychology embedded in that comment!πŸ™‚

      I guess my first thought is that you need to write for yourself, like I quoted Larry Sutin as saying the other day (a previous post). That will solve the chameleon-like tendency you showed when writing around young men. Now as to your inner-self shield, and growing bored (!) with your own voice, that sounds pretty familiar to me. The only word of advice I have is to keep at it, if it’s important to you to work through. A lot of posts on this blog have involved my struggle to put the “I” on the page.

      • Yeah, when I talk about the underpinnings of writing, I somehow end up either in psychology or philosophy–not sure why that isπŸ™‚

        Any writing I do is ultimately for myself–that is a conscious choice I made in coming back to writing in mid-life. I find it fascinating to see the different sides of me come out in different writing situations. Often such writing produces little epiphanies going off like flashbulbs that offer glimpses of insight into where to go from here. Hopefully as I progress, I will have more control over that revelation.

        Since I mostly write fiction, I have more leeway in offering a different voice for each story I tell. For writers of personal, non-fiction work, be it a blog or a series of travel accounts or memoirs etc., your audience is going to expect a consistent voice. It will change over time as you do, but the changes will be trackable and comfortable. If your voice is all over the place, it will feel insincere and readers will lose interest. You are, for all intents and purposes, restricted to one narrator for your work- you.

  4. I think Michele raises an excellent point. We are different with different people and in different situations. None of those personas is false. They’re all aspects of ourselves. We just choose the aspects that seem most appropriate for the situation and audience.

    The writer’s persona is very important to me when I read a blog. I definitely want to see their vulnerability and imperfection, absolutely. I’d go so far as to say that if I don’t see it, I won’t return. I also want a bit of humor and introspection. Pretty much the same traits I’d look for in the people I’d want to interact with in person.

    Which leads me to my other thought on this, which is that all of this applies not just to writing but speech as well. When writing a blog, a person can think about what type of social gathering they’re trying to organize. Is it a professional convention, hanging out at the bar over drinks, a sales pitch or a class discussion? The purpose and audience determine the persona the writer adopts.

    Yours feels like a class discussion, Patrick, for obvious reasons, but even when you’re not attending your residency. But you’re not the distinguished professor at the lectern. You’re the TA in the seminar where everyone is welcome and expected to bring knowledge and insight to the class. And we also hang out with you at the dining hall and share a laugh and a secret or two over our bacon and eggs.πŸ˜€

    • I’m the TA. I love it! That’s a role I feel comfortable with. Can I have some of your bacon?πŸ™‚

      I fully agree about your “gathering” remark. I’ve worked with bloggers who have some widely differing audiences, sometimes with different blogs (one more professional, one more personal, not unlike Michele above). I’m a different person in an office meeting than I am in a writing workshop, and the same goes with a blog.

  5. Agreed! Good blog posts portray their author as human. We who blog may selectively reveal ourselves, but we fall short when we are not willing to reveal some aspect of who we are. It’s really all we have to offer.

  6. Well i really blow out my blogs, and also write on CHPercolatorCoffeeHouseFor Writers, and i have written most of my stuff (including 2 books) in the I. I cringed and self-flaggelated, and people who don’t understand disclosure aren’t comfortable. But the I is worth the risk. it’s not confession or solipsism, but I’m a spunky person, and my spunk goes out and reveals vulnerabillity because we are all human, and i don’t like masks. They’re necessary at times, but some people are good at I’s, and I was a twin, and there were 4 of us within 3 years. I suspect my assertion of the I has something to do with this squish factor. Kaye Kibbons spoke at the Elliot Bay bookstore years ago in Seattle and told the crowd, “My daughter doesn’t like it when I travel, but I said, ‘Mommy is good at writing in the I, and because of this you’ll go to a good Ivy League College.” I am not at that state, but her first book Ellen Foster is a must read. I don’t always write in the I, and am in the process of writing a novel, third person, hmmm. I used to cringe at criticism, but then realized the Slave Narratives started out in the I, and if they could do it, the bravery, the nobility of having the courage, so could I. I’m funny in the eye too, but that’s a whole t’other story. Let me end this with I’ll see you around the bend.

  7. We’re talking about “voice”, aren’t we? In the beginning was the Voice. The words may be just there to serve the Voice. Scary! Confession time: when I write a blog post, it’s the words first, but it passes through at least three drafts, and the final one adjusts that all-important Voice. Were I to publish my first draft, you’d be sure I was a pedantic know-it-all who likely knows nothing. I hope my rewrites succeed in convincing people that I’m just a friendly guy who likely knows nothing.

    • Hmm, PJ, maybe you should try a fourth draft!πŸ™‚

      I think Patrick Madden would be the first to say that revision not only improves writing, it helps you find that true voice. So I’d cut yourself a little slack.

  8. Wow, so much good stuff here, Patrick. I’m actually at a loss for words! I don’t find your blogging voice boastful. Part of the writing gig includes tooting our own accomplishment horn. (I have a tough time doing that because I fear sounding boastful, btw … and would do well to take my own advice.)

    It’s funny — the whole “I” thing. I’m at a place in my life where I’m striving to move beyond what we traditionally think of as I; more away from my perceived terminal uniqueness. That said, I believe that the personal is universal. I try to link the two when I write personal essay or blog. In this way, I think personal essay can relieve the sense of isolation/alienation we humans often suffer from.

    My mode is the opposite of PJ’s. I tend to push “publish” almost immediately after writing. I think I do this, in part, when my subject matter is difficult (as it sometimes is, given one of my blog topics) … and I’m just wanting to be done with a particular memory. Typically, I go back and refine it later … which goes against good-publishing grain, I suppose.

    I do try to stay true to my voice and feel, after years of writing (and therapy), that doing so comes with relative ease. I figure, in so doing, the “right” readership will come — one that resonates.

    Ah, I managed several words after all.

  9. This is an interesting, well argued post. I like it. Some important considerations when writing. Informative article and great reminder of using the three elements of persuasion. I need to reread it. Thanks Author!

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