Sunday, June 22, 2008

Persona Angst

I've been taking a writing class, something that's good for clearing the cobwebs. I've learned in the past couple of years that I'm no good as a teacher unless I can remember what it's like to be a student.

In this class, we students have to take on wildly different voices. The philosophy of the course is that the instructor presents writing samples from published stories (and poems) and we students copy the style. We use our own stories and ideas, but we have to take on the style, or persona, of the writer. That means everything from point of view to sentence style to mood. I've wanted to take this class for more than ten years, even though it's taught in another part of the country. Now they offer it online. It's described as a kind of high caliber boot camp for stretching your range. When I signed up, I thought it was going to be campy and fun, and instead I'm awake nights parsing out the style of this poet and that novelist to reconstruct it. Write a story in first person as a narrator of whole scenes. Write a story in first person as though writing a letter to someone, and use scenes. Write a story in first person but make another character the focus of the story, so it's really third person yet the narrator still (always) has to have a distinctive personality. Write in first person describing the actions of someone else in minute by minute detail but as imagined by the first person after having been described to him or her in the past by the other character. Okay, so the scene is present tense yet it happened in the past? My brain hurts, and it's only week four. I was awake last night from 2:00 to 5:00 working sentences over and over, and sort of crying off and on, not unhappily, just trying to grasp at something that was continuing to slip away, so I could finish the assignment today and post it. And after all that effort and spent emotion, gentle reader, I can now confess that the story I wrote wasn't very good. 
Time to go back and read some more Conor McPherson plays. That first person persona thing is a skill he has down pat, ghosts and devils aside.


2 comments:

Grace T said...

"Write in first person describing the actions of someone else in minute by minute detail but as imagined by the first person after having been described to him or her in the past by the other character."

Huh? I'm going to try to this exercise as soon as I'm able to understand it. It sounds awesome and complicated and cool. Just what I'm up for.

Per your suggestion, I read Ron Carlson Writes a Story and I wrote a story this weekend. Finished a draft this morning.

Thanks again for your comments on my essay. I've done a couple more drafts on
it thanks to your help.

Hope you had a great vacation! I'm off to Canada. . .

Michelle said...

Yeah. It's hard. The story has to start with something like, "Not right then, but many years later, I recalled..." Right? And then you have your first person describing somebody doing something intense, such as caring for a dying person. And you describe that, first person as third person. So far so good. But then at the end the narrator reveals, let's say, that he or she never saw the person doing this thing. They've just been told about it, and are in fact imagining it moment by moment, but in a really poetic, stanza-like way. Easy peasy, right? This is why I mention McPherson, who's forever having characters go on and on first person past tense about some whiskey soaked misadventure involving themselves and someone else, all scene-based, but presented detail by detail so it feels fast and intense, and he doesn't seem to need to be nursing a dying person to get at the emotion.