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The Put-Ons of Personal Essayists

by Carl H. Klaus (14 Nov 2010)

All that fuss about hoked-up memoirs and not a word about the put-ons of personal essayists—it doesn’t make sense. Someone should tell Oprah to send forth her truth squad, so it can track down those impostors who come on in that cozy way as if they were sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings, when they’re actually holding a lot back. Stringing a bunch of words together that make them sound real good, like a longtime friend at a late-night bar, when there’s no telling what they’re like. And the worst of it is they don’t have any shame about coming on like that.

They even write about how they do it, how they write different from who they are. Even the so-called best of them, like E.B. White, who made a bundle off his writing handbook, where he advises students to “write in a way that comes naturally” but then in a letter admits that “writing is a form of imposture: I’m not at all sure I am anything like the person I seem to a reader.” And he’s not the only one. There’s Nora Ephron, who tells about how she concocted “a way of writing that looked chatty and informal.” And how about Nancy Mairs, revealing so much about her multiple sclerosis and depression and fear of crowds you’d think she was on truth serum, but then she has the nerve to say, “I am not the woman whose voice animates my essays. She’s made-up.” So, what gives with someone like that—someone who’s made-up? Can you trust anything she says if she says it in a way that doesn’t sound like who she really is?

   Most readers probably realize that the angry person in the previous paragraphs is a satiric impersonation, as much a put-on as the put-ons he’s angry with. But I wonder how many are aware that the person coming across right now is also a put-on—a genial, low-key fellow I’ve been rehearsing ever since I was captivated some 40 years ago by the familiar voice of E.B. White and imagined I might sound like him by heeding all the rules in The Elements of Style, the handbook of White’s former English instructor, William Strunk Jr., that White revised and expanded into a credo of his own.

   But I didn’t come close to sounding like White, though I did get rid of the academic jargon and the learned strut. And discovered in the process that one can make and remake a self just by wording things one way or another. In slang or highfalutin prose. In specialized language or in plain style. In a cozy or a cocky voice. In a friendly or a distant manner. The possibilities are numerous—so many that I once devised a course in style and voice, requiring students to write several versions of the same personal experience, coming across differently in each. The drama of one’s personality depends, after all, on the dramatis personae one is capable of performing. Or should I say “on the roles one can play”? It depends, of course, on who’s talking.

  Exactly who’s talking in a personal essay is often up in the air, and has been ever since Montaigne acknowledged, “I may presently change, not only by chance, but also by intention.” Charles Lamb’s “A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig” is probably the most extravagant example of essayistic shape-shifting, given its five-part structure (culinary history, celebratory oratory, personal reminiscence, ethical inquiry, pithy recipe), each embodying a strikingly different persona, in a strikingly different style. But Max Beerbohm was such a master ventriloquist that one might wonder whether he ever gave himself away, or whether sincerity itself was a role that he played. Hardly surprising, then, that Virginia Woolf praised him for having “brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr. Beerbohm the man.”

   Edward Hoagland doesn’t even worry about such questions, suggesting instead that “the artful ‘I’ of an essay can be as chameleon as any narrator in fiction.” Neither does E.B. White, who unabashedly declared that the essayist “can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter—philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidante, pundit, devil’s advocate, enthusiast.” How many teachers of writing, I wonder, invite their students to produce essays in which they pull on a variety of shirts, speak in a variety of voices, play a variety of roles?

   Essayistic role-playing has its clearest historical roots in the Tatler, Spectator, and other 18th-century periodical essays. But the ultimate source of impersonation probably should be traced to the paradox that exists at the heart of any personal essay, which by virtue of being an act of self-dramatization is at once a masking and an unveiling, a fabrication and an evocation of self. No wonder Scott Russell Sanders asserts that “what we meet” in a personal essay “is a character who wears the label I.” A uniquely convincing illusion, given the self-referential status of “I” that’s entrenched in language. Also compelling, because the “I” usually comes across in so direct a voice, seemingly without effort or contrivance, that it’s easy to believe one is hearing (or overhearing) the author of the piece rather than a textual stand-in.

Joyce Carol Oates remembers the childhood experience of being so “utterly captivated by another’s voice sounding in my ears” that she not only considered such essayists as Emerson and Thoreau to be “voices of adult authenticity” but also came to believe that “the writing attributed to them was them.”

   In some sense, of course, the voice in a personal essay does put one in connectionwith its author, more directly and closely than any other form of writing, except a personal letter. But the nature of that connection is inherently so tangled and indefinite, so variable from one essay or essayist to the next, that despite the inclination of Oates and others to talk about “authentic voice,” one cannot substantiate the connection beyond asserting that it exists. To determine the authenticity of an essayist’s voice, one would have to know as much about that essayist’s inner life, public behavior, and personal experience as the essayist herself. Yet the temptation to equate essayists with their essayistic selves is seemingly irrepressible.

   How else to account for a friend’s response to my new book: “Your essays sound just like you! You’re there in every one of them.” Which me? I wondered. The academic me? The confessional me? The whimsical me? Or one of the others I contrived, figuring that a book about the made-up self ought to embody a few of my own. I had created so many different voices that I decided my friend must have been joking—or paying tribute to my protean “I.” On the other hand, when my partner, Jackie, finished reading the book, she exclaimed, “I sure wish you could talk like that.” Which me? I wondered once again. But I was delighted that she recognized the made-up self inhabiting my book. Delighted, that is, until I asked her what she meant by wishing I “could talk like that.” Surely, I thought, she doesn’t wish for the antique style that echoes through the beginning of my piece on Charles Lamb—so flamboyant that my editor made me cut it back for publication. No, she had something else in mind that left me at once flattered and deflated.

   “In the book,” she said, “you’re always so articulate, so gracious and thoughtful.” But having paid me that compliment, she suddenly went silent, and an embarrassed little smile crossed her face, for she’d backed herself into a corner, revealing her irrefutable perception that I don’t talk like that. I haven’t done so in some 15 years, except in fleeting moments—haunting reminders of how thoughts and words came swiftly when I was still teaching, still in my 60s, still able to hear well enough for the rapid give and take of conversation. So deft back then that a student once exclaimed: “You speak in complete paragraphs. I wish I could talk like that.”

And so, after all, do I. Indeed, that wish energized me throughout the process of working on my new book. And the years peeled back, as if time had never passed, as if I could speak as deftly as before, unimpaired by an aging mind, a slowing tongue, and a hobbled ear. All the troubles that flesh is heir to relieved by the process of writing.

Such a restorative process, I can hardly imagine why anyone would rail against the put-ons of a personal essayist. They’re the only way to survive. Publish or perish.