Monday, April 25, 2011

Klaus explores the made-up self

Originally printed November 3, 2010.

Can you hear it?

That voice sounding in your head as your eyes scan these words.

If you've met me in person, the voice may sound a bit like my actual voice.

Otherwise the voice probably sounds a lot like your own.

But there is no voice.

No sound.

Just words impersonating a personality.

Just long sentences that meander across several lines of type and that -- hopefully -- hold your attention as raptly as does Garrison Keillor's disembodied voice crackling from the radio during the "News from Lake Wobegon" segment of "A Prairie Home Companion."

Or short sentences.


Powerfully punchy phrases that accentuate the effect.

That make it really seem as if I'm talking to you -- instead of sitting here, writing these words in longhand while eating breakfast at the Hamburg Inn. Or sitting here typing my notes in my office at the Press-Citizen.

It's the virtuality (and changeability) of this kind of voice that has captivated Carl Klaus throughout his long career as a professor of nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa. After becoming one of the foremost experts on the personal essay -- especially those personal essays that are explicitly about writing personal essays -- Klaus recently distilled his career's worth of insight into a slim, 150-page book titled "The Made-Up Self: Impersonation in the Personal Essay" (University of Iowa Press, 2010).

"But the 'person' in a personal essay is a written construct," Klaus writes in his prologue, "a fabricated thing, a character of sorts -- the sound of its voice a by-product of carefully chosen words, its recollection of experience, its run of thought and feeling, much tidier than the mess of memories, thoughts and feelings arising in one's consciousness."

And the writing of such a book must have been a very difficult, self-reflective process. Not only does Klaus' analysis need to be dead on (because his fellow scholars will be familiar with much of the material), not only does his every sentence need to serve as a textbook example of felicitous prose (because his fellow writers and students will be looking for him to show and not just tell), but Klaus also can't help but be acutely aware of the many different personae he adopts when trying to create the illusion of a scholarly, friendly, intimate voice guiding readers through some of the most powerful personal essays ever written.

But Klaus then goes on to show how the supposed "tidiness" of these personal essays is itself a verbal illusion. In his careful readings of Michel de Montaigne, Charles Lamb, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, E.B. White and a host of other more recent authors, Klaus shows how the "I" of the personal essay proves to be every bit as discontinuous, inconsistent and off-point as the individuals who decided to put pen to paper -- or fingers to keyboard -- and transcribe their thoughts.

"The voice of a personal essayist may, after all, be as mutable as life itself," Klaus writes.

And although Klaus presents a highly concentrated history of the personal essay over the past few centuries, his observations are equally appropriate for 21st-century writers looking to bypass the printed page altogether and create that personalized virtual voice solely in the virtual world. Whether you're writing under your own name, enjoying the pseudonymity afforded by usernames or ventriloquizing the consensus opinion of a larger group, Klaus not only helps explain how past writers have brought order to verbal chaos, but he also explains how to make sure that such imposed order always retains some of the power and mutability of that original chaos.

"Change, after all, is in the air -- it touches us, touches our words, touches our personae, as it touches all things," Klaus writes. "So, a voice for all seasons could only exist in a world without change, a life without death. The 'I' is mutable, whether we will it or not."

The flesh-and-blood Carl Klaus will be reading from "The Made-Up Self" at 7 p.m. today in Van Allen Hall on the UI campus. And although the reading is not an official part of this week's Nonfiction Now Conference at UI, Klaus -- as the founding director of UI's nonfiction program -- surely will offer a important introduction to that three-day event.

Contact Press-Citizen Opinion Editor Jeff Charis-Carlson at

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