Writing a Persona Other than Your Own

Writing a Persona Other than Your Own

I had made the triple transgression of assuming the persona
of someone who was of a different race, a different gender,
and a different age.

By Stephen Davenport
See his work in WTP Vol. V #2

Stephen Davenport

According to a young editor at a New York City publishing house, my niche is 1. White. 2. Male. 3. Kinda old. 4. Surprisingly energetic.

It was at a pitch conference, where writers pitch their manuscripts to literary agents and/or acquisition editors of publishing houses, that my wrist was slapped for having strayed beyond my assigned place in the world. Each writer was allotted several five-minute, face-to-face sessions with editors and/or agents, but of those five minutes only one was allowed for describing the essence of a full-length novel. Think literary speed dating.

The first two days of the conference were spent honing our pitches under the skillful guidance of Ann Garvin, writer of On Maggie’s Watch and The Dog Year. Ann advised us to memorize the pitch so we wouldn’t forget an element under the pressure of nervousness and the time limit. She introduced us to the agent or editor and then we pitched.

Miss Oliver’s School for Girls, a boarding school, beloved of its alumnae and students for empowering their lives, is under attack, and it is up to Rachel Bickham, the young African American headmistress, to defend it, in her very first year,” I said, in my first pitch of the day. Ann sat beside the editor, facing me, nodding her head as I went on with the rest. But I was facing the editor and could see that she was not nodding; instead, she looked astonished, as if I’d wandered into the wrong room. There was a moment of silence when I finished, and then she said, “How can you write about a young African American woman?”

I was too dumbfounded to answer. The silence went on while I was deciding whether to lecture her about empathy and the purpose of novels, or to explain that she might understand some day when she finally grew up, and then she broke the silence. I can’t remember the exact words she used, but the gist was, “Why don’t you write about how you have enough energy to write novels and attend nerve-wracking pitch conferences when you should be dead already?” I didn’t answer that question either.

Suffice it to say, she didn’t ask to see the manuscript.

I had made the triple transgression of assuming the persona of someone who was of a different race, a different gender, and a different age. She didn’t think I have license to say I am Rachel Bickham and this is how I react to the world, nor did I have the knowledge or insight.

Rachel Bickham first appears in Saving Miss Oliver’s, the “prequel” to No Ivory Tower. She is the talented chair of science and athletic director who, at the end of the novel, is for very good reasons appointed headmistress when the headmaster suddenly resigns. I did not say to myself, I want to put an African American person in this position in the novel. She just came to me as African American, as did her feistiness, her wisdom, her tallness, her white husband, her widower father, formerly the president of a small liberal arts college, her lawyer brother, and her community activist sister—and her awe of the celebrated teacher who’d been teaching at the school since before she was alive. All of this came to me all at once, appearing as if already alive somewhere in my mind. When I decided to write the sequel, there Rachel was, and because I know the professional world she lives in, having been head of schools like Miss O’s, I “became” Rachel. I was a former head of school writing from the point of view of a current head of school. I didn’t even think of writing in some other person’s point of view.

Now, years after that first pitching experience, I sympathize with those who think I can’t understand what it is to live in Rachel’s skin, and have not earned the license. I can only hope they are wrong. Several other agents and editors in various contexts predicted that readers wouldn’t trust a story “told” by a person so outwardly different from the person who made up the story. They urged me to re-write the novel in the third-person: get more distance. Write her and she; not me and I.

Which is what I finally did. But for a very different reason. I realized third-person point of view would allow me into the heads of three other characters in the novel: a right-wing radio talk show host, a student who was both victim and perpetrator of a sex scandal, and a celebrated teacher who was losing his mojo while Rachel looked the other way. I was even able to send that teacher to Italy on an aborted sabbatical—difficult, if not impossible, while staying home in Rachel’s head. These other characters are interesting, complex people. I know them better than they know themselves. They all know things that Rachel doesn’t.

It took two years to rewrite No Ivory Tower. It is a much better book than the first-person version.

But I’m sad that we still live in a culture in which the first-person version would not be trusted.

Adapted from a post on http://stephen-davenport.com/.

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