This passage from Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative (2001) feels so important that I can’t resist quoting it at length. The book discusses the personal essayist’s need to create a persona who can speak the truth at the heart of that particular story. Here Gornick uses her own experience to illustrate:
I set out to write a memoir about my mother, myself, and a woman who lived next door to us when I was a child. Here, for the first time, I struggled to isolate the story from the situation; here I taught myself what a persona is; and here I began to figure out what they all had to do with one another.
This story–the one about my mother, myself, and the woman next door–was based on an early insight I’d had that these two women between them had made me a woman. Each had been widowed young, each had fallen into despair; one devoted the rest of her life to the worship of lost love, the other became the Whore of Babylon. No matter. In each case the lesson being taught was that a man was the most important thing in a woman’s life. I hated the lesson from early on, had resolved to get out and leave both it and the women behind. I did get out, but as time went on I discovered that I couldn’t leave any of it behind. Especially not the women. Most especially not my mother. I had determined to separate myself from her theatrical self-absorption, but now, as the years accumulated, I saw that my hot-tempered and cutting ways were, indeed, only another version of her needy dramatics. I saw further that for both of us the self-dramatization was a substitute for action: a piece of Chekhovian unresolve raging in me as well as her. It flashed on me that I could not leave my mother because I had become my mother.
This was the story I wanted to tell without sentiment or cynicism; the one I thought justified speaking hard truths. The flash of insight I’d had–that I could not leave my mother because I’d become my mother–was my wisdom: a tale of psychological embroilment I wanted badly to trace out.
To tell that tale, I soon discovered, I had to find the right tone of voice; the one I habitually lived with wouldn’t do at all: it whined, it grated, it accused; above all, it accused. Then there was the matter of syntax: my own ordinary, everyday sentence–fragmented, interjecting, overriding–also wouldn’t do; it had to be altered, modified, brought under control. And then I could see, this as soon as I began writing, that I needed to pull back–way back–from these people and these events to find the place where the story could draw a deep breath and take its own measure. In short, a useful point of view, one that would permit greater freedom of association–for that of course is what I have been describing–had to be brought along. What I didn’t see, and that for a long while, was that this point of view could only emerge from a narrator who was me and at the same time not me.
I began to correct for myself. The process was slow, painful, and, to my surprise, riddled with crippling self-doubt. I found a diary I had kept one summer ten years earlier; it contained information that I knew I could use. I opened the diary eagerly but soon turned away from it, stricken. The writing was soaked in a kind of girlish self-pity–“alone again!”–that I found odious. More than odious, threatening. As I read on, I felt myself being sucked back into its atmosphere, unable to hold on to the speaking voice I was working hard to develop. I threw the diary down in a panic, then felt confused and defeated. …
One day–when I had been looking over an accumulation of pages possessed of what seemed to me the sufficiently right tone, syntax, and perspective–I opened the diary again, read in it a bit, laughed, got interested, even absorbed, and within minutes was making notes. With relief I thought, I’m not losing myself. Suddenly I realized there was no myself to lose. I had a narrator on the page strong enough to do battle for me. The narrator was the me who could not leave her mother because she had become her mother. She was not intimidated by “alone again.” Nor, come to think of it, was she much influenced by the me who was a walker in the city, or a divorced middle-aged feminist, or a financially insecure writer. She was, apparently, only her solid, limited self–and she was in control. I saw what I had done: I had created a persona.
Devotion to this narrator–this persona–became, while I was writing the book, an absorption that in time went unequaled. I longed each day to meet up again with her, this other one telling the story that I alone–in my everyday person–would not have been able to tell. I could hardly believe my luck in having found her (that’s what it felt like, luck). It was not only that I admired her style, her generosity, her detachment–such a respite from the me that was me!–she had become the instrument of my illumination.