The Writer as a Character: Phillip Lopate on Personal Non-Fiction

Posted 2/7/2018

Phillip Lopate, in his book, To Show and To Tell, gives the following advice to the aspiring memoir writer:

Actions speak louder than words. Give your protagonist, your I-character, something to do. It’s fine to be privy to all of I’s ruminations and cerebral nuances, but consciousness can only take us so far in the illumination of character Particularly if you are writing a memoir piece, with chronology and narrative, it is often liberating to have the I-character step beyond the observer role and be implicated crucially in the over-all action. How many memoirs suffer from a self-righteous setup: the writer telling a story in which Mr. or Ms. I is the passive recipient of the world’s cruelty or is exposed to racism or betrayal, say. There is something off-putting about a nonfiction story in which the I is infinitely more sinned against than sinning. By showing our complicity in the world’s stock of sorrow, we convince the reader of our reality and even gain his sympathy.

Or, what makes Crime and Punishment so unnervingly fascinating?