I Craft, Therefore I Am: Creating Persona through Syntax and Style

Persona is the mask writers wear in their novels, short stories, poems, essays and memoirs. It is the artfully crafted or created “self” on the page. Poet Ezra Pound defined persona as a literary stand-in for the author’s voice. It is not the actual self or author; real lives can rarely be contained within the margins. In Jorge Luis Borges’ “Borges and I,” Borges confronts the dichotomy between the self and the persona, saying, “I live, I let myself live so that Borges may write his literature, and this literature justifies me.” Yet this distinction is dismantled in his final line, “I don’t know which one of us is writing this.” Unlike Borges, most of us do know. Less clear is how to portray a portion of our true selves, how to slant the details and to shape our image. One way to translate persona to the reader is through syntax and style. In this essay, we’ll look at two highly stylized memoirs to see how these authors crafted persona.

Consider this passage from Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking:

December 30, 2003, a Tuesday.
We had seen Quintana in the sixth-floor ICU at Beth Israel North.
We had come home.
We had discussed whether to go out for dinner or eat in.
I said I would build a fire, we could eat in.
I built the fire, I started dinner, I asked John if he wanted a drink.
I got him a Scotch and gave it to him in the living room, where he was reading in the chair by the fire where he habitually sat.
The book he was reading was by David Fromkin, a bound galley of Europe’s Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?
I finished getting dinner, I set the table in the living room where, when we were home alone, we could eat within sight of the fire.

Each line operates as a stand-alone paragraph, giving greater emphasis to each sentence and to the space between them. The sentences are short, clipped almost, as if translated from Morse code. The first sentence, “December 30, 2003, a Tuesday,” lacks a verb, and announces the diary-entry nature of the scene. That first sentence is five words long. The second is thirteen. The third is four. The next three sentences are between eleven and fifteen words apiece. The effect is syntactic machine gun fire. Invisible exclamation marks. The abbreviated length functions like an alarm, telling the reader to wake up, pay attention. Just as the author might be telling herself the same thing in retrospect. Didion’s sentences—and, by extrapolation, her persona—are crying for help.

At the same time, perhaps ironically, the abbreviated sentences also make the passage read like poetry. The presence of so few words highlights the negative space around them. And this negative space is overwhelming, creating an interesting if simple metaphor—that is, the overwhelming negativity of this moment as shown through the largely unmarked page. The area surrounding Didion’s emotionless sentences is haunted by what she doesn’t reveal; this absence gives us the opportunity for an emotional response. The white space suggests what is happening off the page—her husband is dying. You could even say that his death is occurring in the void. The author’s persona cannot face this event. She obscures it from herself by ‘hiding’ it in a wordless desert. The short sentences show us that the persona is both controlled and under attack. Didion’s use of negative space, which physically overwhelms her words on the page, shows us that her persona is overwhelmed.

In addition to sentence length, we also learn about persona via repetition and parallel structure. The second, third and fourth sentences begin with the words “We had.” Perhaps the focus on “We” is significant as it’s the last time she gets to use it. In this passage, the phrase “eat in” is used twice, as is “build a fire.” “Dinner” comes up three times, “fire” two more times, “living room,” and “reading” twice. The sentence, “We had come home,” is itself repetition of a known fact; it could be assumed by the circumstances—clearly the narrator wouldn’t make dinner or build a fire at the hospital. Repetition acts as a highlighter, marking words and phrases so that they catch our attention. If she’d written, “After seeing our daughter in the hospital, I made us dinner at home,” this would be a very different piece of writing. It would sound ordinary, routine, unremarkable. But instead, the language shows us that for Didion’s persona this day was anything but ordinary—in fact, it was the most abnormal and devastating day of her life. Yet she is not willing to say that outright. Didion forces her persona’s devastation into the density of this excerpt, through the repetition of her words and through the repeating structure, also known as parallelism.

Another perspective is that Didion is stripping her language of beauty, simplifying it, to use only the essentials. As such, the writing has the format of a police report or a news bulletin. Why is that? Using the police report analogy, she’s trying to understand what went wrong. If she can just get the details down, unencumbered by emotional content, if she can just get the facts, perhaps she can pinpoint the error and resurrect her husband. That her attempt at comprehension might be driven by a Lazarus-like impulse shows the persona’s limited grasp of logic and rationality—because of this, we know that the persona is suffering.

By using short, sparse sentences, the writing sounds like a warning; she’s using a loudspeaker, calmly telling us about the fire we can’t yet see. The prose, and, thus the persona, appear to be emotionless. And yet, behind her words lies a tsunami of emotion. How do we know? Because normally inconsequential details: whether or not they ate in, whether or not she built a fire, whether or not he wanted a drink, where he sat, what he read, are in fact of great consequence. If they weren’t, Didion wouldn’t share them with us. Or if she did, she would bury them in long sentences. Here, they stand in the spotlight. The short, sparse sentences also show that the persona is in shock, capable of only basic functioning and basic writing.

These seemingly inconsequential details matter because they’re all the persona has. The mundane moments are marked in bold by what follows—her husband’s death. She later says, “What gives those December days . . . their sharper focus is their ending.”

The language Didion uses, particularly when describing the death of her husband, John Dunne, is precise and controlled. Likely, the logic is that if she can control the words, she can control the feelings—this is how she avoids the inevitable grief that awaits her. What does this show us about the persona? That she lives in fear. Precision is her reaction to terror. If this persona were attacked, I imagine she would remember every detail of her attacker, but I don’t know if she would cry out. It’s as if she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. And maybe she does. Watching people die is traumatic. In the new world Didion confronts as a widow, control is her first line of defense. She backs up this argument with her maxim: “Read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information is control.”

Didion says this about language:

As a writer, even as a child, long before what I wrote began to be published, I developed a sense that meaning itself was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs, a technique for withholding whatever it was I thought or believed behind an increasingly impenetrable polish.

The “impenetrable polish” Didion refers to is the persona. It’s created via the meaning “resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs,” also known as syntax. And as she tells us here, she uses this polish to withhold. Though she looks at grief from a philosophical standpoint, or remarks on her illogical attachment to her husband’s shoes, she rarely shares her emotional state.  Yet I have the impression that Didion wrote the only words she could; this scene of her husband’s death keeps resurfacing, both in her mind and on the page.

Not only does Didion the writer exercise control, but she also employs distance in order to translate her persona onto the page. We hear about their discussion, but we do not hear the discussion itself. Not only are there no direct quotes, the discussion isn’t summarized—we only know that they did discuss. In this way, Didion doesn’t place the reader in the room. And I don’t think she wants to—these last moments with her husband are hers and hers alone. The pronouns in the short, declarative sentences are “we” then “I.” “He” is used twice, but unlike the other pronouns, it’s followed by the past continuous: He was reading, he was sitting. Her husband John is almost a prop. The verb tense is an interesting and appropriate choice since we use past continuous to indicate an interrupted action. And what interrupts John’s sitting and reading, and eventual eating, is his death. Past perfect is another distancing factor. She doesn’t say “We discussed,” but rather, “We had discussed,” making the event even more removed—this is true for the reader and for the persona. Thus, we learn that Didion’s persona is trying to extricate herself from this traumatic event through distance.

The emergency room social worker calls Didion a “cool customer,” and for much of the book, the description is apt. The writing is free of emotion, almost clinical. And yet absence breeds presence; her sparse language, ordinary details, and extensive use of white space all hint at her grief.

Whereas Didion relied on sentence length, repetition, parallelism and verb tense to convey her persona, Nick Flynn uses modifiers, meter, analogy and punctuation, as well as parallelism and repetition, to portray his persona in his memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.

Each night, like another night in a long-running play, I wander the empty streets, check on every sprawled man until I find him, tension built into each blanket. Each man has a role—one will be the lunatic king, one will be the fool. One will offer dire warnings, one will plot against us, one will try to help. I am forced to play the son. .  . The stage is done up like the outdoor space of an anonymous American city—broken neon, billboards of happy products, vast, empty. The light is dim, but we can make out figures draped in blankets, on benches, in doorways, beneath bushes. Each night I wander among them, and some I speak with, and for some I leave food. Another blanket. A coat. Any one of them may or may not be my father. Though the audience expects the encounter, they’ve paid for the encounter, I may not find him.

The placement of clauses and modifiers in the first sentence convey both grief and acceptance. How so? Let’s go back to grammar basics. What is happening in this sentence? What’s the predicate? Wander. Who is doing the wandering? I. I wander. A left-branching modifier precedes it: “Each night, like another night in a long-running play.” A right branching modifier, “tension built into each blanket,” follows the independent clause. Grammatically, this sentence is a mouthful. The experience of reading it, of moving from one branch to another, is slow and deliberate, thus revealing a calm and broken-hearted persona. To me, it suggests that Flynn has accepted the circumstances he’s confronted with. This is clear from the sentence’s structure, which gives the writing a soft, incremental quality.

Likewise, the language choices reflect his persona. Not only is the word “night” repeated, but the scene itself is repeated each night as if it were part of a long-running play: here he goes again, wandering the empty streets. And the sentence wanders along with him. That the speaker is checking on “every sprawled man,” is evocative of working with the dead, collecting bodies, an act that underlines this scene with a sense of gravity. This emotional weight is reinforced by the “tension built into each blanket,” tension integral to life on the streets, to searching for his homeless father, who could appear underneath any blanket, anywhere in Boston and at anytime. Furthermore, Flynn’s father’s homelessness mirrors his own—Flynn, who lost his mother to suicide and dropped out of college, makes minimum wage at the homeless shelter and spends his weekends getting high. Thus, we learn that his persona is both wise and sorrowful; he knows there is no quick fix, no easy way out for his father or for himself.

Look at how meter reveals persona in this first sentence. You find stressed syllables flanking each comma: like, comma, night; play, comma, I; streets, comma, check; him, comma, tension. The stressed syllables define the end and the beginning of each phrase, effectively sewing the language together. As such, meter gives a plodding aspect to the prose. And in the plodding there is sorrow. Thus we learn the persona is plodding along, into and beyond whatever obstacles, or in this case, stressed syllables, he comes across.

In the next two sentences, with Flynn’s play analogy, these homeless men and the speaker himself are given roles. This has a dehumanizing effect because they could be anyone. And because they could be anyone, the narrator’s experience moves from the personal to the universal. How many men fall to the same fate? How many sons search for their fathers? And not by choice. No, the verb here is “forced.” He doesn’t want to play the son, but whether he runs away or wanders the streets, his father’s homelessness, alcoholism and absence remain. Assigning roles suggests that these men are cursed to repeat themselves, and that lasting change is far from likely. Today, one plays the lunatic king; another, the son. Tomorrow, others assume their places. There’s no chance for escape. Thus, the persona, this son, is trapped along with the other fathers and sons on the street.

The use of punctuation enhances the sensation of being trapped, and of the speaker’s accompanying grief. He doesn’t say vast and empty, but vast comma empty. It’s not in doorways or beneath bushes but in doorways comma beneath bushes. The rhythm is melancholic—it’s as if the speaker is so grief-stricken that he doesn’t have the strength for conjunctions. This rhythm is contrasted by two sentences with only two words each: “Another blanket. A coat.” These fragments underline the finite nature of what he can give. The blanket and coat won’t change anything fundamentally—they merely offer another night of survival, both for the homeless men and for the speaker. Why the speaker? Because he’s out there too—doing something, even if it’s inconsequential, and in some small, metaphorical way, that keeps him alive. This persona confronts paradox: his words suggest hopelessness while his actions suggest the opposite.

Persona is also shown through the passage’s parallel structure, which transmits a sense of monotony. Three of the eleven sentences begin with the word “each”: twice with “each night,” once with “each man.” In the second and third sentences, the words “one will” begin five clauses in a row: “one will be the lunatic king, one will be the fool. One will offer dire warnings, one will plot against us, one will try to help.” In the sixth sentence, which lists the locations where the speaker finds the homeless men’s bodies, each phrase starts with a preposition: “draped in blankets, on benches, in doorways, beneath bushes.” (As a brief aside—in this last example we have plenty of B and D consonance, which gives the passage a slow, deliberate quality.) In the next sentence we have two phrases centered on the word some: “some I speak with and for some I leave food.” In the final sentence, the phrase “the encounter” is repeated: “the audience expects the encounter, they’ve paid for the encounter.” In the monotony that comes from this parallel structure, we circle back to the closed loop that the speaker cannot escape; he is powerless over his fate—he may find his father, he may not. Additionally, the monotony of the syntax reflects the monotonous and grief-filled experience of the persona.

In these examples from Joan Didion and Nick Flynn, we’ve seen how persona is crafted in seemingly miniscule ways—through sentence length, punctuation, meter and repetition. We often hear that dialogue is a great way to show character because everyone speaks with a different voice, uses different language, chooses different moments to be silent. In addition to the “normal” dialogue you find in both fiction and nonfiction, I believe that in memoir the narrator is essentially in constant dialogue with the reader. Thus the way we speak to the reader defines us and shapes our story.

We’ve been looking at the building blocks that form persona. What we are creating—or recreating—in the case of memoir is ourselves. Not necessarily who we are today but who we were in that story, in that time. If you speak to the reader in long, meandering or breathless sentences, you translate differently from a persona who speaks in short, staccato bursts. And of course our personas are far from static, but we aim for consistency in tone. In general, how you reveal yourself, is, well, revealing.

Persona is something I struggled with while writing my own memoir. On an auspicious day in April in 2008, I knew I was writing the first page. What I didn’t realize was that this page would be deleted from subsequent drafts. But this is where it all began. As writers we have to make our own clay, so here is my raw material, the original initial sentence of my book:

A maroon ‘89 Jetta sailed down the highway, easily exceeding Michigan’s seventy mile-per-hour limit, zipping from left to right, right to left until it found its kind ahead, a coalition of speeders reenacting U-boat wolf pack tactics from the Second World War in hopes that someone had radar or the leader would take one for the team if a patrolman appeared out of nowhere, lights blinking, siren blaring, accelerating from zero to sixty in seven-six-five-four-three-two-one.

Whew. I’m exhausted—exactly the reaction I hoped for. This opening is 80 words long. That the sentence has little to do with the topic of my memoir is beside the point.

When I returned to the first half of my memoir, I encountered a breathless quality in the prose. I found a young, urgent voice that wanted me in her grasp. But to be honest, I wasn’t sure how much I liked her. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get to know her. She didn’t sound like the type I would have a latté with, that I would invite over, or that I would listen to for any extended period of time. These are telling indicators, since reading is essentially a one-way conversation with the author. And in memoir, if we aren’t emotionally invested in the narrator, the author has failed.

With persona in mind, I wrote a different beginning to my memoir. The difference between these two openings is subtle. The first new version, “Haunted” was Flynn-esque:

Ten years later, I still can’t let it go. My brief moments with Maggie and Neenef are now fragments of film loaded through the reels of my imagination. There, they await any stimuli capable of turning the dial, initiating the projector’s hum. Sometimes it’s as simple as staring out the window or as direct as reading about another school shooting.

With revision, the opening became more like Didion:

The murder, the suicide. Ten years later, I still can’t let go. Brief moments with Maggie and Neenef. Fragments of film loaded through reels of imagination—awaiting stimuli to turn the dial, initiate the projector’s hum. Sometimes as simple as staring out the window. Or as direct as reading about another school shooting.

What changed? We’ve moved from four sentences to six. Complete sentences to fragments. What has this done to the persona? What I hear in the fragmentation of the revised passage is a fragmented speaker. And fragmentation is aligned with grief, even obsession. When the narrator says that she “can’t let go,” I hear it in the writing. While the complete sentences in the first passage suggest that the event did not have a lasting impact, the revised version’s incomplete sentences show the persona’s incompleteness. Syntax mirrors experience, which shapes persona. Everything is working in unison.

As anyone who has read multiple memoirs by the same author has noticed, persona shifts from book to book. In Sue William Silverman’s first memoir, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, her adolescent persona tries on flannel pajamas at a department store:

I believe if I owned these I would be able to curl inside them and sleep undisturbed for years, smelling and feeling their warm comfort. I have no money, but I must own these pajamas. I must steal them—I must. I cannot leave without them. I roll the cuffs to my knees, put my skirt on, pull my sweater over the top, and zip up my jacket. Slowly, I leave the store.

The opening to Silverman’s second memoir, Love Sick, takes place in a motel parking lot in Texas:

I cut the engine and air conditioner and listen to stillness, to nothing, to heat. Sunrays splinter the windshield. Heat from the pavement rises, stifling, around the car, around me. No insects flutter in the brittle grass next to the lot. Trees don’t rustle with bird wings. A neon rainbow, mute and colorless by day, arcs over a sign switched to vacancy.

The difference is striking. You can hear the contrast in age and perhaps in cynicism. The young persona has impossible dreams about what this pair of pajamas could do for her, so much so that they drive her to steal. We hear the desperation in the repetition of “I must.” The older persona is subsisting in a void, in perpetual heat where nothing happens. In the negation—“nothing,” “no insects,” “trees don’t rustle,”—we hear a resigned persona, one that is perhaps as mute and colorless as the daytime neon rainbow over the motel room.

I’ll leave you with a writing exercise. I invite you to follow the same thematic territory as Didion and Flynn and consider loss. Of fresh flowers, the family pet, or a traumatic event like the one Didion describes. You could describe how a significant relationship ended. What was said? What was left unsaid? What matters most is your relationship to the loss—it must be intimate and therefore meaningful. As usual, avoid abstractions. Focus on the details. Be specific. Write the beginning of a scene to bring us into the moment of loss. Then revise to mimic either Joan Didion’s short, abrupt sentences devoid of emotion, or Nick Flynn’s long, spacious sentences weighted with emotion. Remember, we invent and reinvent ourselves with words. Choose or revise wisely.

Works Cited
Anderson, Erika. “Breathing Through Broken.” (Unpublished).
Borges, Jorge Luis. Dreamtiger. Trans. Mildred Boyer, Harold Morland. …..Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985.
Didion, Joan. A Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Knopf, 2005.
Flynn, Nick. Another bullshit night in Suck City: a memoir. New York: …..W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.
Silverman, Sue William. Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember
. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996.
Silverman, Sue William. Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through
…..Sexual Addiction
. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.jordan Sneakers | Sneakers

Categorized as Craft

By Miciah Bay Gault

Miciah Bay Gault is the editor of Hunger Mountain at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She's also a writer, and her fiction and essays have appeared in Tin House, The Sun Magazine, The Southern Review, and other fine journals. She lives in Montpelier, Vermont with her husband and children.