Photo by Richard Gilbert

[“Labor of Love Thrift Store.” I took this in The Plains, Ohio, near our old farm.]

Ten Late Notions About the Self in Memoir and Creative Nonfiction.


1.   “Truth is subjectivity.”—Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript.

Every human experience is first passed through the scrim of emotion. A vital tool in our kit. Consider the jury system.

Art is made from emotion, is about emotion, asks for an emotional response.

But for making art from experience, like Kierkegaard did, craft is required. Techniques that tell the reader a wiser intelligence is at work to wrest something shapely from the quotidian, from chaos, from mere moods. Part of this craft of presentation is the creation of a palatable, truth-telling persona. Witty or somber. Earnest or flip. Glimpsed in the margins, or all over everything like white on rice.

This is an approved practice. Rock solid. Take it to the bank.

2. “A sensibility we construct into some kind of figure is what keeps the reader going.”—former Atlantic editor Richard Todd, to a workshop I attended.

This emphasizes Persona 1: the person telling the story, someone come to testify or entertain. Both, really, always.

Often as well there’s Persona 2: the former self in the experience being depicted or discussed.

Behind these, there’s the writer creating each persona.  Is that Persona 3? Or is that “you”?

3. Maybe it’s this simple:

You take something that is important to you, something you have brooded about. You try to see it as clearly as you can, and to fix it in a transferable equivalent. All you want in the finished print is the clean statement of the lense, which is yourself, on the subject that has been absorbing your attention.—Wallace Stegner, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs

4. Maybe it’s not:

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

—T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Call that face what Freud called the ego: a mediation between the censoring parental superego and the unruly id.

How is preparing a persona in prose any different? Do writers, like children, perform for the superego—that is, for society, a stand-in for parents?

5. “Personality is a series of successful gestures.”—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.


[Dawkins: Classic British twit.]

Buddhists view the fiction of a concrete self as a delusion; we’re more like onions, with various layers, no core. For convenience we might call the conceit of a self the ego.

A similar notion of the unmoored self was expressed by the existentialists; they believed there’s no essence but only a self constantly created and re-created through action. Supposedly unlike our dog, and certainly unlike a chair, humans lack a blueprint, save what we draw in action. We’re consciously choosing what to do in each moment and thereby can define a new self—but also have the burden to do so.

Despite or because of its grandiose romanticism, existentialism seems moribund. But what coherent belief system doesn’t?

The more recent theories of some evolutionary psychologists are much darker, implying that all significant actions are the product of genes, our behaviors forged during centuries of evolution. There is a blueprint, and we can’t see it. We can’t help our bad side any more than our dog can his. Change essentially is impossible, a pathetic hope for an animal (admittedly complex) that evolution has programmed, as thoroughly as any robot, to be utterly selfish.


[Shakespeare: immortal British genius.]

Have we truly become such dwarves since Shakespeare’s grand vision of us? People may be gluttons for punishment, but surely only superficially accept this damning nonsense, despite the cachet of that classic British twit Richard Dawkins. Evolution itself is of course real, merciless, and beautiful. As always, though, it’s all in how you interpret, which depends on what you bring to the table. Was Lincoln a mere tool? Or was he expressing something great within us? Charles Darwin knew that parsing the ramifications of his profound insights would be fraught. Watch “selfish gene” Dawkins on TV and you’ll find it hard to resist wanting to give him noogies, a wedgie, an Indian burn, a Wet Willie. This is the dork who tells us how dark and corrupt humans are?

Buddhism doesn’t bother with God but presumes far less than most belief systems, certainly less than than atheistic evolutionary psychology claims for itself, and at least offers good tools.

6. “The first art work in an artist is the shaping of his own personality.”—Norman Mailer.

Dorothea Brande’s slim 1934 classic Becoming a Writer says conviction is the underpinning of all imaginative writing. Writers therefore must know who they are and what they believe about most of life’s major issues. Like their notion of God, she says. (Quaint, I know. But it seems to me an adult’s task, even today, to define the God he does or does not believe in.) In his foreword to the 1980 paperback reissue of Brande’s book, John Gardner says the root problems of the writer are personality problems, “in other words, are problems of confidence, self-respect, freedom . . . Her whole focus, and a very valuable focus indeed, is on the writer’s mind and heart.’’

7. We touch, rub shoulders as we go, but we move forward each alone into eternity encased in the narrow cell of self.

Seeing survivors’ pain, Jesus wept.

Kierkegaard, whose concerns and cure were likewise spiritual, was a master at using different personas—characters, actually, who express different human responses to life and mortality. As an author, this precursor of existentialism, and its rare theistic wing, spoke to a deeper need than self-discovery, that of rebirth:

 If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much.

If you forget, can you draft a new persona for yourself?

I’ve tried—who hasn’t? As they say in southern Ohio, “It weren’t easy.”

8. “Wanting to be noticed is wanting to be loved.”—Richard Poirier, The Performing Self: Compositions and Decompositions in the Languages of Contemporary Life.

Is the artist only someone who wants to be noticed more? Loved more? Is this quality, offensive in everyday life if too obvious, justified by content and rendered palatable by craft?

Maybe, like our stories, we are constructs—complex interactions between genetics and environment—but with something mysterious in us as well. Something in the depths that links humans across time. Carl Jung called it the collective unconscious. Trying to express this, or tap its power, the constructed self constructs a self in which to present self and story.

9. The usual image of the writer is one who has stuffed herself with much Art and much Life. This constructed fullness gives the writer the right and the material to spin her tales, to hold forth.

Gertrude Stein, in her strange essay “What are Master-pieces and Why Are There So Few of Them,” seems to argue, to the contrary, that the artist must draw from what is original and unbuilt within. “After all,” she writes, “any woman in any village or men either if you like or even children know as much of human psychology as any writer that ever lived.” The artistic self is not the piling up of more and more identity but a paring. She seems to argue for expression of an irreducible core that is completely original:

The thing one gradually comes to find out is that one has no identity that is when one is in the act of doing anything. Identity is recognition, you know who you are because you and others remember anything about yourself but essentially you are not that when you are doing anything. I am I because my little dog knows me but, creatively speaking the little dog knowing that you are you and your recognising that he knows, that is what destroys creation. . . .

 10. W.B. Yeats explaining his creative process:

I think that all happiness depends on the energy to assume the mask of some other self; that all joyous or creative life is a re-birth as something not oneself, something which has no memory and is created in a moment and perpetually renewed.

So you, whoever you may be, you are—or might be—a vessel of creation.


  • shirleyhs says:

    Great collection of quotes, Richard. In the end the self is still a mystery, but a precious one.

  • David Owen says:

    Wow! Richard, I love this. All of it. But I’m partial to SK whom I read a lot in seminary. One of my colleagues there who thought me a bit dour, complained, “You haven’t found Jesus: you’ve found Soren Kierkegaard.” Your blog is timely. I’ve begun reading him again. And I’ll have to think about what persona I’ve created for Art Notes.

    • Richard says:

      So good to hear from you, Dave. I figured I’ve laid an egg with this one. But as Mick said, “It’s only rock and roll!” You remember my son, Tom, the baby who cried out in your sanctuary one Christmas Eve, “It’s the baby Jejus!”? A SK expert. I have not read enough Kierkegaard, partly the sheer mass of his corpus being discouraging, but from a literary perspective he’s amazing, since his writing is not didactic but the presentation of stories through various personas.

  • Dear Richard, And a happy seasonal greeting to you! I love all you’ve put together here, but now after putting together a segment on the “palatable, truth-telling persona” (and I’m perhaps being uppity in trying to set you a “next” task), why don’t you do a segment on the role of the “unreliable narrator” in all this? I’m intrigued by what you might have to say, especially in relation to memoir and autobiography. Or are you ahead of me, having already done this somewhere that I’ve overlooked?

    • Richard says:

      Oh, Victoria. You ARE a hard taskmaster! You know, your idea does dovetail with an idea I have been kicking around for a followup: the benefits and cost of a narrator in nonfiction does not try to make himself palatable. This is somewhat unusual but evidenced in a memoir I just read, [sic] by Joshua Cody. I guess I will have to try it, after all . . . Thanks, I guess!

      • Always happy to oblige–he!he! Seriously, I think an unreliable narrator would be a special category of being in what purported to be a genuine memoir, and would perhaps cause it to verge on narrative fiction rather than something like fact. But that’s just a sloppy guess on my part.

        • Richard says:

          Right, it’s one of those very difficult things and a bit of a gray area in nonfiction. One way around the problem of the overly performing narrator wanting to be liked is the use of second- or third-person narration. Then you treat yourself a bit more like a character, and it opens up possibilities, though it still seems a bit radical to many editors and publishers.

  • J.V. Wylie says:

    Thank you Richard for the effort, plainly honest as you always are, of this hardest of issues of who you are when you start to write, because, as you point out, it gets to the question of what portion of the subjective you is just you and not me and what is it we that both have in common and why we share it. I’m with you in your reaction to Dawkins, who thinks that we are vehicles for our “selfish genes.” Give me a break! When we talk about persona, we are talking about the mind, not the brain. Linguists have learned a lot about the nature and incredible complexity of grammar, but semantics, the actual mechanism whereby what you write communicates meaning to me, remains a mystery. I personally believe that we live much of our lives inside the thin ether of our relationships with one another, even when we are alone with our word processors—and that world, by definition, is a spiritual space without materiality. On the other hand, I love your honesty that it is a given that, of course, everyone writes because they want to be liked and admired, but that you have to tuck that one away somewhere.

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