Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Pleased to Meet Me?

"Who am I? Where am I? Why am I?"

These questions were often rhetorically posed to me by one of my former supervisors, who asked them with a dazed look on his face meant to mock the undergraduate students who were seemingly unable to comprehend their coursework or lives. On the one hand, he was onto something, as we didn't always encounter the brightest minds of our times. On the other, "Who am I" is a question as old as humanity, one we often struggle to answer for ourselves, let alone for other people.

Walt Whitman declared that "I am large, I contain multitudes." Here, then, is a man who acknowledges that he is not a single thing but is comprised of many personae, from a patriot ("O Captain! My Captain!") to the ghost of his childhood self ("Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking") to a lover  ("We Two Boys Together Clinging") to an unabashed voyeur ("Crossing Brooklyn Ferry"). Being Whitman, though, he was completely willing to expose all of his inner selves to the world, because he loved us and wanted to share everything.

For the rest of us, it's not always that easy. Sharing our authentic feelings and showing our true colors can be intimidating, especially for introverts. When it comes to writing, though, I find it easier to be open and honest. Yet a dilemma remains: how best to present myself? Or, put another way, what voice am I meant to use here?

Dinty W. Moore puts it best:

Although the personal essay is a form of nonfiction, and thus the self you bring to your essay should be an honest representation of who you are, we are in fact made of many selves: our happy self, our sad self, our indignant self, our skeptical self, our optimistic self, our worried self, our demanding self, our rascally self and on and on and on. But in truth, if we attempt to bring all of these selves to every essay that we write, we run the risk of seeming so uncertain, so indecisive, that we merely confuse the reader.

Here, he's specifically discussing personal essays and memoirs, but I think it can apply to any form of writing, particularly poetry, and even fiction: if you simply take this advice and apply it to a first-person narrator, you will be able to construct a character with a consistent voice throughout your novel or story. 

For my part, I've never spent much time thinking about my blogging persona. Perhaps I have a  singular attitude that comes naturally to me depending on the topic I'm discussing: passionate, skeptical, excited, literary, and so on. When it comes to writing essays, however, things are different. I struggle to make myself coherent. The form somehow affects me, puts more pressure on me, whether it should or not.

So I'm going to take the advice Moore lays out elsewhere in his piece and examine my motivations and the things I'm trying to convey when writing essays so I can share myself more effectively with the reader. After all, a writer is nothing without an audience, and garbling your message can drive readers away.