From the Creative Nonfiction Workshop: Week 3

Our conversation in workshop today centered on Phillip Lopate’s craft article, “Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character,” which appears in Writing Creative Nonfiction, edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard. Lopate points out the importance of the essayist becoming a round character in his or her essay, dramatizing the writer’s complexities and tapping into what Lopate calls “teeming inner lives.” Lopate suggests cutting away the inessentials of our characters and highlighting those features  that lead to contradictions or ambivalence. Characters become interesting to us when they act against type, giving us something we didn’t expect. If we provide a baseline of the character by establishing a pattern of habits and actions, then any variation that hits upon another aspect of the personality will immediately resonate with the readers. As Lopate points out, the personal essayist needs to take an inventory of his or her idiosyncrasies, inconsistencies, and quirks. He also stresses the importance of being able to view oneself from some distance and with a degree of self-amusement while also being willing to analyzing the flaws in one’s thinking. All of this is necessary to seeing oneself in the round, thereby becoming a vibrant and interesting character in your own essay.

But how does one do that, one of my MFA students asked. How does one go about dramatizing the self from a position of contradiction or ambivalence? It’s a fair question of what means best produce the desired result. It’s a question that perhaps I can begin to answer with a writing activity. I’ll admit that I haven’t thought this one all the way through yet, but I’m sort of circling the center the way a good personal essayist approaches his or her material, viewing it from this angle and that, trying to see as fully as possible, paying attention to leaps in thought, associations of images, juxtapositions of scenes, etc. So feel free to take these prompts and turn them however you’d like. We’ll consider them suggestions that when put into some sort of order will allow you to practice some strategies for turning yourself into an interesting character in your essays.

1.     Start with a moment of regret, perhaps one that still strikes a note of ambivalence in you or otherwise locates itself with the contradictions of your own character. Perhaps you’ve created this moment of regret via your own actions or words. Lopate talks about the importance of giving yourself something to do in the essay, an action that creates certain consequences. Brenda Miller’s essay, “Swerve,” for example (Brevity, Issue 31),  begins with our author running over a piece of wood in the road: “I’m sorry about that time I ran over a piece of wood in the road. A pound of marijuana in the trunk and a faulty brake light–any minute the cops might have pulled us over, so you were edgy already, and then I ran over that piece of stray lumber without even slowing down.”  For the purpose of this prompt, you might begin with, “I’m sorry. . . . .” Or, “I regret that I. . . . .” Or, “If I could, I’d. . . . .” The objective is to begin to create the character you were in a specific moment from the past, one that still haunts you, fills you with shame, makes you feel like apologizing.

2.     Take a step back, speaking now from your adult perspective, about the younger character you’ve begun to create for yourself. Establish a baseline for that younger self. You might begin, “When I was twelve, it was my habit to. . . . .”

3.     Now introduce a variation. “But one day, I. . . . .”

4.     Who were you at the time you’re recalling? Consider the communities in which you had membership. Your family, your church, your grade school class, etc. You might begin with, “I was. . . . .” Gee, just tell us who you were, concentrating on offering only what we need to know about your character to highlight the contradictions or ambivalence relevant to the moment of regret you’re recalling.

5.     Complicate your character. You might fill in the following line: “At times, I. . . . ., but there were also times when I. . . . .”

6.     Look at yourself from a distance, perhaps with self-amusement. You might being with, “Who was that boy (or girl) who. . . .”

7.     Analyze your own flaws You might begin with, “Maybe I was wrong to . . . . ., but. . . . .”

8.     End with a confession: “I confess that I. . . . .” Or, “What I never told anyone was that. . . . .”

It’s my hope that these prompts, in whatever order and form you choose to use them, will help you feel your own character deepening as you revisit a moment of regret. In the process, you should feel what you can do with perspective, persona, modulation of voice, and the variations of your own personality (the inconsistencies and quirks and flaws) that make you a memorable and multidimensional character as displayed through action and through the adult narrator’s perspective on the person he or she was.

It was interesting to me that our conversation about one of the student-written essays today focused upon a structural rearrangement that took away the question of whether a childhood friendship would endure. Letting the readers know early on that the friendship would unravel demanded that we replace that tension with a new one, the question of how two girls, raised in the same place and with similar interests, could take such different paths in life. The question of  “why?” is often more interesting than the question of “what?” Character is always more compelling than plot, although plots can, of course, be foremost if created by the character that the writer is making of him or herself on the page. Lopate talks about the importance of conflict in personal essays: “What gives an essay dynamism is the need to work out some problem, especially a problem that is not easily resolved.” So we create ourselves as characters in our essays, people who are conflicted and trying to reach some sort of balance. We have to be able to see ourselves as clearly and with as much insight as we do the characters we create of others.


  1. Richard Gilbert on April 16, 2012 at 10:11 am

    Thanks for another great exercise, Lee, and for explicating so well Lopate’s seminal essay. Your students are lucky to have your guidance. The truth of the need for the distanced narrative persona I have learned long and painfully mostly on my own.

    I wonder what is the deep and intrinsic reason for the reason that this, as a technique, works? The best I have been able to come up with is that that part of narrative is in our DNA, just like the need for stories themselves. The survivor of the hunt or the battle carried back the tale; a human told of his and others’ actions in the past. So perhaps this comes from the ur basis of literature, the oral tradition.

    I have just reread Gatsby, looking at it as presented as a memoir of sorts (like Heart of Darkness) with a distanced narrator. I’ve probably read many other great novels set up this way without noticing it. Of course with fiction this is highly optional, whereas with memoirs it’s almost a requirement.

    Finally, my best current instructional text is your own new memoir, Such a Life, which I am really enjoying, and noting this dual aspect you weave always throughout. I especially love, so far, “Never Thirteen,” and marvel in it how the distanced perspective does not kill the unfolding story but adds to it and deepens it.

    • Lee Martin on April 16, 2012 at 4:01 pm

      Richard, I think you’re right that the human storytelling need is great, and the most common way of fulfilling that need is to be the storyteller after the fact. In a way, I guess this is similar to the quest hero that Joseph Campbell describes in THE HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES, the figure that travels into an unfamiliar world and then must make the decision whether to stay there or to return and bring back his story. In memoir, I think we’re always traveling into a world that is familiar, yes, but also unfamiliar because now we’re looking at it from a different perspective. We are the simultaneous participant in and spectator of our own stories.

      Thanks so much for your kind words about SUCH A LIFE, and, as always, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.

  2. Mimi Chiang on March 6, 2013 at 2:17 am

    Dear Lee,

    I was researching Phillip Lopate and came upon your blog. What a wonderful resource your blog is – thank you for a clear, easy to digest, no writer’s lingo and use of language that us mere amateurs fail to comprehend. Your breaking down of Lopate’s concepts into prompts is invaluable Thank you!

    • Lee Martin on March 6, 2013 at 8:40 am

      Dear Mimi,

      Thank you so much for your comment. I’m glad the remarks on Lopate were useful to you. I appreciate your taking the time to leave a comment. Take care.

  3. Deb P on February 17, 2015 at 4:48 pm

    I took some twists and turns on the web and found your blog; I’m so glad I did. I’m working on my thesis for my BFA in Professional and Creative Writing, and your blog is officially going to be one of my resources! Have a wonderful day!

    • Lee Martin on February 17, 2015 at 4:52 pm

      Here’s to the twists and turns that take us to new places! Thanks so much for finding my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. Good luck with your thesis!

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