Separating the Person from the Persona: Details and Distance in Creative Nonfiction – An Interview with Kim Dana Kupperman

by Erin A. Corriveau

Kim Kupperman
Kim Kupperman Bio

Kim Dana Kupperman once told me that you can learn a lot about a character by the things they carry. Here’s what her accoutrements say about her: Kim carries a handful of fine markers in various shades to differentiate notes on her students’ pages, large index cards with miniscule print suggesting edits or texts related to their manuscripts, student writing-related handouts, a hyper-organized binder, and water. These items indicate that she is meticulous; she is devoted to both her craft and the development of her students. She is careful and attentive to detail. Above all, she’s impassioned, and has much to share with her students—so much so, that she is willing to push through a parched throat with some water to ensure they all leave her class a bit more informed and empowered.

Q. How does characterization in creative nonfiction differ from other genres, if at all?

A. I don’t think there’s much of a difference between genres when characterization is successful. The distinction, perhaps, has to do with the use of a first-person narrator and the persona adopted by that narrator to tell a story, regardless of the form that story takes (essay or short story, memoir or novel, poem). In poetry, persona is used all the time, allowing a speaker to inhabit a specific character and thus voice a belief, narrate a story, reveal a secret or a self. In the essay, the persona is the façade or character or mask adopted by the narrator; it is colored by the writer’s self, but is not necessarily the writer (think Charles Lamb’s  Elia, or E. B. White’s gentleman farmer). The narrator is simply the first layer of what we might call a “nonfictive veil” used by an essayist or memoirist, and can often be described by adjectives such as male/female, older/younger, and so on. But the persona requires shape, and, therefore, nouns to define the roles a narrator might adopt—curmudgeon, manipulator, witness. And the language a writer uses: syntax, vocabulary, paragraph and sentence length, point of view are the tools writers have to build such elusive elements as voice or sensibility, which provide clues to who the narrator and persona are.

Q. What are some specific craft techniques creative nonfiction writers can use to ensure that their characters leap off the page?

A. Understanding how to write a scene (with all its varieties of dialogue) is one way to make characters three-dimensional. Nonfiction writers should read as much dramatic literature as they can and pay attention to:

  • What is not being said
  • How characters do not necessarily listen to one another
  • What characters are doing when they interact; the decisions characters make

Dialogue is not just a volley of words thrown back and forth, but an exchange. The trick in nonfiction, of course, is not to be a tape recorder spewing back what was actually said (which is impossible), but to dramatize the moment in which characters interact. This doesn’t mean making up a scene, it means writing it. Often, writers new to memoir present work that simply summarizes something that happened to the narrator: first my parents took me to see my dying grandmother, then they bought me some ice cream, then we came back home, and a call came telling us Grandma had died. The writer can see—in his or her head—the scene playing out—and by this I mean that the writer can feel the texture of the corduroy jacket she or he was wearing, or smell the odor of gone-by lilacs coming through the open window, or hear the ice-cream truck coming down the street, or taste the grilled-cheese sandwich eaten for supper when the call came and the news was announced—but all we as readers see is the summary. Grounding characters in the details of scene will make them leap off the page and maybe even all the way off the page and into the armchair of the reader.

Q. What are the challenges with characterizing people one doesn’t know intimately, but who still appear in the writing? How do you write a secondary character?

A. I like to think of secondary and tertiary characters as scaffolding for the narrator and other primary characters. One of the best examples can be found in E. B. White’s essay “Death of a Pig.” In that piece of writing, there are three primary characters—the narrator, the dying pig, and Fred, the narrator’s dog. White includes a cast of other characters, including: the narrator’s son, a neighbor (Mr. Henderson), a vet, a second vet (McDonald) and his fiancée (Miss Wyman), and a telephone operator. White uses these characters to set scenes that tell us about the how the narrator interacts with others, bringing to life the old adage that character is action. The essay is instructive in terms of characterization because White focuses on details—how conversations progress, what someone is wearing, the way in which characters react and how they do things. I can’t say exactly how to write a secondary character, but there are many wonderful examples to be had, notably in the following essays: “Notes of a Native Son,” by James Baldwin; “Street Haunting” and “Death of the Moth,” by Virginia Woolf. Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast, and Jerald Walker’s Street Shadows are three examples of memoirs in which character development is superb.

Q. Is there anything nonfiction writers have to be especially careful about in characterization, since their characters are real people?

A. My personal rule is not to be mean spirited. If someone has caused harm or hurt to the writer, the best way to write that person is to try and understand them. Which means having a degree of compassion that is often difficult to attain when one is close—temporally and/or emotionally—to a painful event or a person’s bad behavior. Compassion often requires that we distance ourselves from hurtful events. Unfortunately, a lot of memoirs are written without that distance, which (even more unfortunately) makes them highly marketable because there’s such a premium on sensationalized “reality.” Sometimes it’s valuable to come at a painful experience using an approach that focuses on a larger-issue topic. Some examples include just about any of Montaigne’s essays, “Hateful Things,” by Sei Shonagon, “On the Pleasures of Hating,” by William Hazlitt, “In Bed,” by Joan Didion, and the book Remedios, by Aurora Levins Morales. Look at dramatic literature and, in particular, look at how Shakespeare or Albee or Ibsen or Strindberg or O’Neill handle those characters we might call villians. Ask how such writers have described such characters. And how, too, have they handled the chink in the armor of the so-called hero or heroine? When a narrator reveals his or her flaws, a reader is much more apt to empathize.

Q. How have you struggled in your own writing with characterization? What strategies do you employ to limn your characters?

A. It took me a long time to learn that my relations were people struggling to do the best they could do and that what might be considered bad behavior was often a primal reaction to circumstances, some of which were beyond their control. Once I had that perspective and could see my mother—to name one character in my own family romance—as a person with desires and dreams, disappointments and betrayals, she became human in ways I had never contemplated. And instead of her being cast in this drama only in the role of my mother, a woman who, in reality, pushed all my buttons, she transformed into a multidimensional character for whom anything—including her own happiness—was possible. And once that metamorphosis of thinking about her occurred, I was able to explore, in my writing, what happened to change her life, the circumstances that compelled her to act as she did, the reasons for her deep unhappiness. This is not about excusing someone’s behavior but understanding it. As an aside, the process of understanding her took place only after my mother died, and it continues, more than two decades after her passing. So, here’s one of the most useful strategies—give things time to be and give yourself time to truly understand what you see, hear, feel, touch, taste. I am chuckling to myself as I say this because I am one of the most impatient people you’ll ever meet. But I’ve learned, to invoke the Rolling Stones, that time is definitely on the writer’s side.

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