I AM STILL TRYING to figure out how not to sound snide, superior, angry or righteous in a long form piece of mine that seems to be a perpetual work in progress: shelved and then revisited, frantically reworked and then shoved aside, tentatively approached and agonized over. I can’t quite get the persona right.
The awareness that nonfiction relies on crafted personas as much as fiction relies on carefully developed characters is not exactly intuitive. It took a lot of editing experience and Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story to start drilling this into my head: each time I write, I’m a character in my own writing, and I have to be aware of that character and her persona on the page.
The danger in not paying any attention to this is writing a story, like Gornick did about Egypt, like I’m doing about the Dominican Republic, and like Julian did about Uganda, which is hindered by a lack of writerly distance, a lack of awareness of persona on the page.
Like many writing concepts, if you think too hard about this while you’re working you exponentially increase your chances of mucking it up, creating something stiff and artificial. And yet I this is something writers need to be conscious of each time they sit down and reread: what kind of persona am I creating here, and what is that persona doing for my audience? Also: what is this piece doing, what are its central questions, and is the persona on the page furthering those or undermining them?
In Julian’s initial drafts he tended to come off as defensive and righteous, and sometimes overly conclusive:
I had scoured tons of other international volunteer organizations, many of which charge volunteers tons of money to work in impoverished communities all over the world. Too often, though, only a fraction of the money these organizations receive actually touches the communities in which they are based. I think some funds should cycle through such communities, so shoot me. Considering my work was directly benefiting the family with which I worked at a smaller cost, I figured the program in Uganda would work best for me.
I agreed to do the video. Through the process though, I kept having this internal battle: my brain told me I was being taken advantage of, but my heart told me to just spare the extra hour or so and knock the video out. The video was done within days because I gave my word that it would be. For me, my word means a lot – it is the foundation of any trust that I can build with someone. Unfortunately, not everyone shares this philosophy.
In successive drafts of the piece, he let this defensiveness go and that persona ceased distracting from the story and alienating the audience. He also relied on a lot more narrative, showing vs. telling, and that did away with some of the need for righteousness. Check out Julian’s finished piece, Why I stopped buying the sugar, on Matador Change.