What We Know, What We Don’t: Persona in Memoir

There’s a point in Sue William Silverman’s new memoir, How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, where she’s writing about getting a phone call from her doctor, telling her she has an E. coli infection in her bladder. He prescribes the antibiotic, Macrobid. For Sue, who readily admits her hypochondria, the idea of taking the Macrobid leads her immediately to this equation: “Infections = antibiotics. Antibiotics = death.” I’m writing this post in the midst of a global pandemic. COVID-19 is spreading world-wide and is altering our customary ways of life. It’s easy to see, then, how the context in which I read this part of Sue’s book affects the emotional resonance of the words. We all carry aspects of our person and the world at large into every reading experience we have. In short, what we know influences our response to the words on the page.

But what about all that we don’t know? How does that have a similar influence, not only on what we read, but also on what we write? Because of Sue’s history of Clostridium difficile infections brought on by antibiotics, she has good reason to fear taking the Macrobid. She makes a trip to her doctor’s office, admitting she doesn’t know why outside the fact that she wants proof of his diagnosis: “I must see him,” she writes, “because then I will decipher a secret meaning in his message. The message will withdraw the E.coli from my system. It will prove the diagnosis is a mistake. It will commute the death sentence.” This is difficult stuff—not only the admission of illness but also the depiction of the panicked, illogical mind—and Sue uses a couple of techniques to get it down on the page.

At one point, she states everything she won’t tell us about her embarrassing meltdown in her doctor’s waiting room: “I refuse to describe my sobs at the receptionist’s counter. I refuse to mention how I grab off my glasses with such force they break.” Of course, in the process of refusing to describe this scene, she tells us everything. It’s a trick we nonfiction writers off play in order to put the uncomfortable or the unflattering onto the page. Try it sometime. Recall a moment from your life that makes you uncomfortable to remember. Then start a freewrite with the words, “I won’t tell you. . . .” Fill in the blank, and you’ll find yourself, like Sue, relating exactly what you’d prefer not to tell.

Sue ends up taking the Macrobid, knowing she’ll have to wait a week or two, to see if she’s going to avoid the C-diff.  She begins a passage with these words: “This incident is happening now on February 13, 2015. . . .Right now, I don’t know what will happen” And there we are in that place of unknowing, a place from which Sue chooses to make a point about the use of persona in memoir:

And because this is ongoing, as I write this, how to select the voice to best present this episode? If I know I won’t get the infection, I’ll be ironic. I’ll step outside the moment and observe it from a slight distance. A historical self, a self that knows the outcome, will filter the drama calmly, more insightfully.

 If I get ill, however, irony is the wrong tone. Death, or near-death, deserves nothing less than a full-blown melodrama.

 Persona, as Sue illustrates, is often connected to how much we know and how much we don’t.  By writing in the present tense, she locates us in the midst of her uncertainty, creating a completely different reading experience than the one we’d have if she wrote in the past tense, the position from which everything has already happened. Her persona would have spoken, then, from a place of knowing and the uncertainty would have been eliminated, and thus the panic and the fear.

When we write memoir, we’re always utilizing a multitude of personas. We’re at the very least the participants in the experiences we’re dramatizing, but we’re also the spectators of those  experiences. There are many shades of personae between those two ends of the spectrum, and we can, if we choose, modulate among them, selecting the proper one for the experience we want to render, the one we want to resonate for a reader.


  1. Joy Gaines-Friedler on April 28, 2020 at 3:48 pm

    I always learn so much from you. Love these blog posts. Thank you.

    • Lee Martin on April 29, 2020 at 12:03 pm

      Thanks, Joy. I hope you’re doing well.

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