"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth."
Next time you sit down at the computer, pull out your tablet, open your notebook or start scribbling furiously on whatever paper product is in reach, I invite you to consider the following:
You, dear writer, are not the narrator.
Yep, that's right. Although you the writer are indeed doing the writing, your narrator is the one telling the story. And that narrator is not you.
Sure, your narrator could be a slightly more neurotic or jealous version of you, or someone very different from you, or somewhere in between, but he or she is not you. Yep, even when you're using first person.
I first heard this concept while studying poetry and fiction techniques at The Writers Studio in Tucson, Arizona. In class, we referred to the narrator of the story or poem as the "persona narrator" or PN - a persona with a distinct take on the world and way of speaking constructed by the writer to tell their story in the most engaging way possible. In other circles, this construct is often referred to as "narrative voice."
Consider the persona narrator similar to hiring a director to shoot your movie. Give the same screenplay to Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino and you will end up with three very different movies. Imagine Titanic directed by M. Night Shyamalan instead of James Cameron!
Similarly, the fit between your narrator and your story is everything. Don't like how things are going? Fire your narrator! How the story is told is just as important as the story itself. If your narrator is not serving your material in the best way possible, kick them to the curb and start auditioning new ones.
Although this may seem like a simple and even obvious idea, for me, it was a revelation on many levels:
When it was no longer me telling the story, but someone else, it created distance between myself as the writer and the material I was interested in writing about. Many of us, myself included, tend to write from a place of at least some small truth, but if we are too attached to the facts, we may feel obligated to tell the story or the moment exactly as it happened. This can keep us from crafting our most engaging story for our reader. Just because Uncle Fred was at the dinner table when your brother announced he was becoming a circus performer in real life does not mean Uncle Fred needs to be in your story if he does not serve it.
Placing your story in the hands of your narrator allows you to more freely imagine the lives and emotions and perspectives of others. Your narrator can do all the things you never would, say the things you'd never think of uttering aloud and/or follow a set of beliefs or values different from your own. By engaging our imaginations as writers, we are able to continually surprise ourselves in our writing, and if we are surprised by what comes out on the page, likely our readers will be too.
Seeing your narrator as separate from yourself provides endless possibilities to have fun with your writing. Have you tried writing a story with a narrator of the opposite gender? Re-telling a story from your past in which you actually push that woman on the subway back instead of letting it go? Telling the story of your wedding day from the perspective of your obnoxious and vulgar Aunt Ida?
As a teacher, some of the most engaging narratives I've read have involved the writer creating a narrator very different from him or herself. I still remember a story written by a 92-year-old, retired technical writer but told by a 20-something personal trainer with a height complex, and a 60-year-old woman bringing in a story told by a rat in love with a prostitute.
In other cases, I've had students bring in narrators who were much closer to themselves, but in handing their material over to their narrator, found the distance they needed to write artistically about topics that would otherwise be perhaps too close their hearts: a military veteran writing about children befriended during a deployment who were later killed; a college student trying to make sense of a father's recklessness.
So get to holding that casting call; your next narrator is waiting for you in the shadows, ready to step into the light.