Yesterday, Cathy and I went bowling with some of my MFA creative nonfiction writers. I’d told everyone in advance that they’d have to arrive with assumed names—bowling names, if you will. They took the task seriously, and just like that we created our alter egos. In other words, we created second or different versions of ourselves.
When we write memoir or personal essays, whether lyric or narrative in nature, we consciously or unconsciously speak from a certain aspect of our personality—some part of the self that we sense is necessary to the exploration of certain subject matter. We’re made up of so many selves, it’s impossible to speak from all of them in a single essay. Somewhere along the line, a decision gets made. This, we say or intuit, is the part of me that allows the deepest exploration of this material.
What if an exaggerated persona turns out to be truer then we imagine?
Here’s a writing exercise designed to tap into such a persona to see what it might have to teach us about ourselves, others, and the worlds we occupy:
- Start by identifying a time in your life that still gives you some discomfort to recall. Maybe it’s your high school years when you felt like you didn’t fit in. Or maybe it’s a time when you or someone in your family suffered an illness or a loss. Or maybe it’s a time when you made a grave mistake and your life almost took an irredeemable turn. Spend a few minutes writing about this time in your life, laying out the facts.
- Now it’s time to play, “Let’s Pretend.” Create an alter ego, someone very different than the person you believe you were at that time in your life. Maybe you could begin with, “I wish I’d been,” or, “Maybe if I’d been” (fill in the blank with your alter ego). Then continue to write about how you think things would have been different if you’d been this different person.
- End by interrogating your choice of this alter ego. “Maybe I like to imagine myself as this person because. . . .” Then look for aspects of the alter ego that are truly parts of your personality. Here, you’re trying to find out what was true about you and the situation all along, even though you couldn’t see it, or articulate it, at the time. You’ll need to adopt the reflective voice for this one. “Looking back, I understand. . . .”
When we survive a discomforting time in our lives, we create a narrative that interprets that time. Any story told long enough and often enough becomes true. Sometimes, though, we rely on that narrative and its “truth” too much, to the point that we miss other aspects of the story that are just as accurate. That’s what the writing is for, to invite a clearer vision. Jolting ourselves out of our traditional ways of seeing can allow us to see more clearly and completely. Creating a persona can be a good way of inviting a different angle of vision, one that might take us somewhere we wouldn’t otherwise go.