A Self Made of Words: Crafting a Distinctive Persona in Nonfiction Writing

A Self Made of Words: Crafting a Distinctive Persona in Nonfiction Writing

by Carl H. Klaus

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Confident or fretful, solemn or sassy, tough or tender, casual or formal: the self you project in writing—your persona—is the byproduct of numerous decisions you make about what to say and how to say it. Though any single word or phrase or sentence might make little difference within the scope of an entire essay or book, collectively they create an

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Confident or fretful, solemn or sassy, tough or tender, casual or formal: the self you project in writing—your persona—is the byproduct of numerous decisions you make about what to say and how to say it. Though any single word or phrase or sentence might make little difference within the scope of an entire essay or book, collectively they create an impression of who you are or seem to be—an impression that’s sure to influence how readers respond to your work. Thus it’s essential to take charge of how you come across on the page, to craft an appropriate persona for whatever you’re writing, whether it’s a personal essay, a blog, a technical report, a letter to the editor, or a memoir. In this wise and ingenious little guide, noted essayist Carl Klaus shows you how to adapt your self to the needs of such varied nonfiction, by varying his own persona to illustrate the distinctive effect produced by each aspect and element of writing.

Klaus divides his book into two parts: first, an introduction to the nature and function of a persona, then a survey of the most important elements of writing that contribute to the character of a persona, from point of view and organization to diction and sentence structure. Both parts contain exercises that will give you practice in developing a persona of your choice. Challenging and stimulating, each of his exercises focuses on a distinctly different aspect of composition and style, so as to help you develop the skills of a versatile and personable writer. By focusing on the most important ways of projecting your self in nonfiction prose, you can learn to craft a distinctive self in your writing.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In writing, “an imprint of yourself is unavoidable, as surely as a fingerprint,” argues Klaus (The Made-Up Self), founder of the University of Iowa’s nonfiction writing program. His latest book is a practical guide for writers hoping to refine their nonfiction persona, which can change depending on subject matter, audience, and the tone the writer is hoping to convey. Deceptively simple, this slim volume offers numerous examples on subjects such as using point of view, continuity and discontinuity, periodic sentences, content, parallelism, and more. Klaus pulls a variety of examples from artists, such as Nora Ephron and Henry David Thoreau, which highlight choices of style, balance, and concrete and abstract diction. Divided into two sections—“Your Self in Writing” and “Elements of Writing and Your Self”—Klaus’s suggestions and personas come across clearly, welcomingly and repeatedly, due to his concurrent participation in the exercises provided at the end of most chapters. The exercises ask the reader to work and rework pieces they produced in the first few exercises. Perhaps the most important lesson to be taken from the text, which also includes a suggested reading list, is the importance of practice, revision, and reflection. The book is a welcome addition to the nonfiction writer’s resources. (Nov.)
From the Publisher

"Teachers of creative nonfiction have been waiting for a book just like this: an elegantly articulated, easily accessible text that reveals the clear distinctions between style, voice, and persona. The brief, relevant exercises at the end of each chapter will educate and inspire student writers. Thank you, Carl Klaus. Thank you!"—Hope Edelman, author, The Possibility of Everything

"Carl Klaus is one of the great pioneers in the study of literary nonfiction. He is also a brilliant teacher who has guided countless students—many of them now well-known authors—through the joys and challenges of crafting beautiful, effective prose. Here he draws on his substantial experience to take on one of the genre’s defining, yet most elusive features: the creation of a distinctive literary persona. This book is a godsend for all writers and teachers of nonfiction—and their students!"—John T. Price, author, Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships

"Carl Klaus is to persona what Strunk and White are to style. A Self Made of Words offers clear, friendly instructions on how writers can create their persona of choice—a lifeline to getting a life on paper."—Lynn Z. Bloom, author, The Seven Deadly Virtues and Other Lively Essays

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University of Iowa Press
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By Carl H. Klaus


Copyright © 2013 Carl H. Klaus
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60938-194-3



To see how varied one's persona can be, I'd like you to reread the preceding paragraph, which is addressed to "you" in an informal style; then compare the way I sound in that passage with the way I would have come across in a completely different style, beginning instead with a long impersonal sentence and a scattering of big words, without any mention of "you":

The persona embodied in a piece of written discourse has so frequently been considered an authentic manifestation of its author's self that the illusory and artificially crafted nature of it has often been overlooked.

Or consider how differently I'd sound if I'd written it in a personal and colloquial style, using plain and simple language, focusing primarily on thoughts about my writing and yours:

The way I write is so much a part of me, a reflection of who I am, that I figure it must be the same with everyone else. I mean, who's there in your writing if not you?

Or imagine how I might have come across if I had started out in first-person plural and tried something in a metaphorical vein:

Our writing so often seems to be a reflection of ourselves, or some facet of ourselves, that it's tempting to think our prose is a mirror, when it might in fact be a hall of mirrors, giving readers a very distorted image of ourselves.

Given such different personae, you might wonder which is the most authentic, which one closest to the real me. And my answer would be that each one reflects an important aspect of my self: the metaphorical one embodies my literary inclinations, the casual one my impulsive side, the impersonal one my longtime academic experience, and the opening one in direct address to "you" echoes my desire to engage in a friendly give-and-take with you. So in a way they're all reflective of me, yet none of them encompasses all the dimensions of my self, and therefore none of them is fully true to me. All of us, in fact, have so many different sides that no single form of writing, no single style or voice, could do justice to our selves. Thus, the more versatile we can be in our writing, the more likely we are to be true at least to some aspect or side of our selves at any particular moment in our lives. Right now, for example, another variation on the theme of my opening paragraph has just come to mind, embodying an important point of view that isn't reflected in any of the others, so I've included it here:

Me and my persona—we've been together so long it's sometimes hard to tell us apart. Or so it might seem to someone who doesn't really know either of us. But I do, and I can tell you it's changed so much, as have I, that I sometimes wonder whether we have anything to do with each other at all.

Though the opening sentence of this passage sounds like the earlier one in first person singular, it also calls into question the breezy equation of self and persona that permeates the earlier passage, and thus reflects the changeableness that I perceive both in my self and my persona—changeableness that is to some extent inevitable in all of us.



Another way to think about your persona is to consider it an essential element in a performance of sorts. To take part in a performance may seem like a fanciful—and somewhat devious—thing to do in your writing. But most of us perform a variety of roles every day of our lives, given the different people we encounter—at one moment with friends, at another with the boss, at another with colleagues, at another with loved ones. With each of them, we tend to behave and talk in a somewhat different way, presenting a different version of ourselves, a different persona, that resonates both with them and with a distinctive aspect of ourselves. And we change not only because of the person(s) at hand but also because of our mood or the gist of what we're saying. So it's not at all far-fetched to think we might do the same thing in our writing. Or, as E. B. White says, the essayist can "be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter—philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil's advocate, enthusiast."

The ability to adopt a changing persona is essential not only to writing effective essays but also to producing such varied kinds of writing as personal letters, blogs, technical reports, newsletters, opinion pieces, and analyses. And the practice of adapting one's persona to such varied prose has a long and distinguished history, as you can see from the following passages, all by Benjamin Franklin:

(1) About this time I met with an odd volume of The Spectator. It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished if possible, to imitate it.

(2) Be studious in your profession, and you will be learned. Be industrious and frugal, and you will be rich. Be sober and temperate, and you will be healthy. Be in general virtuous, and you will be happy.

(3) There is in every village a vacant dwelling, called the strangers' house. Here they are placed, while the old men go round from hut to hut, acquainting the inhabitants that strangers are arrived, who are probably hungry and weary; and everyone sends them what he can spare of victuals; and skins to repose on.

Each of these pieces stands out from the others not only because of its content but also because of its point of view and style—each so distinctive they could have been written by three different people. The first one, from Franklin's autobiography, is marked by its very personal manner, by the predominance of "I," also by its plain diction and relatively short sentences, as if its author were as frank and unassuming as the style of his personal account. The second passage, by contrast, is very stylized, each sentence in the imperative mode, the voice of command, each sentence tersely phrased in the manner of an aphorism, and each sentence balanced in the same way to emphasize a cause-and-effect morality, as if its author were a very self-confident preacher or teacher. A persona that Franklin evidently felt free to assume, given that in this case he was concluding a letter to a young man who had solicited his opinion on early marriages. The third passage, on the other hand, has neither the plain personal manner of the first nor the authoritarian style of the second. Instead, its third-person point of view and matter-of-fact style, describing village behavior in a lengthy and detailed sentence, creates the impresssion of having been written by an objective observer, somewhat like a latter-day cultural anthropologist, a stance that Franklin must have wanted to assume in this instance because he was writing a pamphlet attempting to dispel the prejudices of colonial Americans about the native American Indians. So the content, point of view, and style of each passage project a different self created by Franklin to meet a complex set of circumstances existing as much outside him as within him.

If changing styles and stances seem to compromise a writer's integrity, consider the folly of ignoring such adaptive behavior—imagine Franklin writing about the Indians in the personal mode of his autobiography. It would be as inappropriate as attending a public meeting in a bathrobe. Each set of conditions calls for a different form, style, or point of view, and our response had best come within its boundaries if we hope to be effective. The boundaries are not narrow; they often allow for a range of voices, enabling each of us to authenticate ourselves. Franklin, for example, needn't have concluded his letter in such an aphoristic style, but evidently he felt moved to do so, and the situation also gave him the liberty to do so. So it might be said that effective writing is the result of a complex interaction between our private intentions and the public circumstances of communication.

Changing subject matter as well as changing circumstances also produce changing personae, as you can see by looking at two more passages, in this case by the contemporary essayist and film writer, Nora Ephron:

(1) We have lived through the era when happiness was a warm puppy, and the era when happiness was a dry martini, and now we have come to the era when happiness is "knowing what your uterus looks like."

(2) I broke up with Bill a long time ago. It's always hard to remember love—years pass and you say to yourself, Was I really in love, or was I just kidding myself?

These passages, like the ones by Benjamin Franklin, sound so different from each other that it seems as if they could have been written by different authors. In part, of course, the contrast is produced by striking differences in the style of each passage: the first one distinguished by its carefully crafted three-part series in closely parallel form ("the era when ... the era when ... the era when ..."), whereas the second, by contrast, appears to be so casual as not to have been crafted at all, as if Ephron were talking out her thoughts as they came to mind without any revision. But those differences are a reflection of the different content in each passage—the first, an overview of three different cultural periods, the second a bit of reminiscence about an emotional breakup (which actually refers to her disillusionment with Bill Clinton), a reminiscence that leads to reflections about the uncertainty of love. But the casualness of the second is probably as deliberate as the careful crafting of the first.



Though most of this book is focused on the form of your writing, on how to word things and how to organize and present your material, it's important to keep in mind the rhetorical truth exemplified in the passages by Ephron and Franklin—that the content and purpose of a person's writing exert a major influence on the character of a person's written self. An autobiography, after all, is sure to call forth a different persona from a letter of advice or a field report. So too, a piece about changing cultural eras is likely to evoke a different persona from a piece about an emotional breakup (personal or political). But beyond such obvious differences, the persona in a specific piece of writing is also influenced by its author's distinctive slant on things, by thoughts and feelings that are expressed or implied, by details that are emphasized or downplayed—in other words, by the specific content of the piece. For example, if you look again at the first paragraph of this book and the four alternative versions of it that I produced, you'll see that each version has a somewhat different concern from the others. Whereas the first version confidently asserts the difference between a person's written self and his or her flesh-and-blood self, the second version worries about the mistaken tendency of people to confuse one self with the other, while the third version proclaims the identity of both selves, the fourth version ponders the causes and possible effects of the tendency to confuse one self with the other, and the fifth version focuses on the changeability of both my self and my persona. In other words, the different versions not only embody different sides of myself, but they also reflect some of my different thoughts on the relationship of a persona to its author, and those differing thoughts give rise to a different persona in each case.

The nature of a persona is rarely a simple matter: it's the byproduct of several influences, and it can change markedly, even in the course of a single piece, as in "My Father, My Fiction," a personal essay by Joyce Carol Oates. As its title suggests, Oates's essay focuses on her father and the profound connection of his life story to the nature of her fiction writing. Here is an excerpt from Oates's biographical account of her father:

My father was born in 1914 in Lockport, N.Y., a small city approximately 20 miles north of Buffalo and 15 miles south of Lake Ontario, in Niagara County; its distinctive feature is the steep rock-sided Erie Canal that runs literally through its core. Because they were poor, my grandmother (the former Blanche Morganstern) frequently moved with her son from one low-priced rental to another. But after he grew up and married my mother (the former Carolina Bush), my father came to live in my mother's adoptive parents' farmhouse in Millersport; and he has remained on that land ever since.

This passage about Oates's father stands out not only because of its attention to the poverty of his circumstances but also because of its informational tenor from start to finish. Oates's style here is so matter-of-fact, so free of emotional overtones, that she sounds like an objective biographer rather than an admiring or affectionate or sympathetic daughter. So it might well be inferred that the way she comes across here is the result of a deliberate decision not to display her feelings in this passage about her father—and/or to let the facts speak for themselves. Whatever the case, a passage such as this one clearly embodies a central truth about writing— specifically, that no matter whom you're writing about, whether it's your father, a friend, or a person you've never met before, you're also conveying something about yourself by the way you choose to write about that other person. Imagine, for example, how differently Oates would have come across if she had begun the paragraph cited above by asserting that "the pitiable circumstances of my father began when he was a little child in Lockport, N.Y."

Oates's intent to provide a dispassionate account of things pertaining to her father and mother is also evident in a passage that comes several paragraphs later, about the farm that they shared with her maternal grandparents:

Facts: the property my parents shared with my Bush grandparents was a small farm with a fruit orchard, some cherry trees, some apple trees, primarily Bartlett pears. My memories are of chickens, Rhode Island reds, pecking obsessively in the dirt.... Fruit picking, epecially the harvest of hundreds of bushel baskets of pears, fell to my father, when he wasn't working in Lockport at Harrison Radiator.

The latter part of this passsage also bears witness, though without comment, to the burdensome quality of her father's life. But the full significance of this and Oates's other informational passages only becomes clear a couple of short paragraphs later when she directly expresses her thoughts and feelings in a different style and tenor:

I wonder if it is evident how painfully difficult it has been for me to write this seemingly informal memoir?—as if I were staring into a dazzling beacon of light, yet expected to see?

All children mythologize their parents, who are to them after all giants of the landscape of early childhood; and I'm sure I am no exception.

And yet ... and yet: it does seem to me that my parents are remarkable people, both in themselves as persons, as "personalities," and as representatives and survivors of a world so harsh and so repetitive in its harshness as to defy evocation, except perhaps in art.

In these and succeeding paragraphs Oates is as forthright about her thoughts and feelings as she had been reticent about them before, openly expressing not only her anguish about the harsh circumstances of her parents' lives but also her admiration of their endurance in the face of those circumstances. Given her reticence in the passages I've cited, as well as the fluency of her prose in those passages, I imagine that many if not most readers will have been surprised to learn "how painfully difficult it [had] been for [her] to write this seemingly informal memoir." Thus the revelation of her thoughts and feelings is all the more dramatic given her previous suppression of them.

Now that you've seen how effective it can be to project a dispassionately informational manner followed by a direct revelation of your thoughts and feelings, I'd like you to write a few paragraphs about your father and/ or mother, or some other important person in your life. In the first couple of paragraphs, your aim should be to write about them in as matter-of-fact and dispassionate a style as possible; in the next couple of paragraphs, your aim should be to write about them as frankly as possible. After you've finished this assignment, I'd like you to write a separate paragraph reflecting on what you discovered from trying out these different styles and stances.

Excerpted from A SELF MADE OF WORDS by Carl H. Klaus. Copyright © 2013 Carl H. Klaus. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Carl H. Klaus, founder of the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, is professor emeritus at Iowa and coeditor (with Patricia Hampl) of Sightline Books: The Iowa Series in Literary Nonfiction. His widely praised nonfiction includes The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay (Iowa, 2010), Letters to Kate: Life after Life (Iowa, 2006), My Vegetable Love: A Journal of a Growing Season (Iowa, 2000) and its companion, Weathering Winter (Iowa, 1997), as well as Taking Retirement: A Beginner’s Diary. His most recent nonfiction project (coedited with Ned Stuckey-French) is Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time (Iowa, 2012).

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