I know “notorious badman” Sam Bass didn’t write his own “Wanted Dead or Alive” poster, but I couldn’t resist using the description of him with its surprising last sentence to make a point for this lesson. The fine print on the poster reads:
A handsome young man, 5’7” tall, with sandy-brown hair, black eyes, light complexion, and large even teeth. He sometimes wears a sandy-brown mustache. He is a poor dresser.
Ha! Bass sounds so appealing at the start—so dapper for a train robber. But then all that handsomeness is betrayed by his mismatched? sloppy? apparel. A dead giveaway as far rich train robbers go, apparently.
By nature we are complex and contradictory creatures. Our emotions and behaviors are not always consistent with what we usually present to the world: When riled, the sweet-faced, elderly neighbor comes out with an expletive that makes the cat cringe. The hardened ex-gangster secretly rescues abandoned kittens. None of us are a one-note song. As P. G. Wodehouse says, I’m not always good and noble. I am the hero of this story, but I have my off moments.
Whether writing about yourself or anyone else, it’s important to be real on the page. That’s not to say you have to spill all your sordid secrets, but there are ways to use self-deprecating humor to present some of the less flattering aspects that make you the human you are.
This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff is his coming-of-age story. Constantly on the run with his mom, suffering at the hands of a mean stepfather, Wolff learns to survive—by hook or by crook. The book opens with the following scene, important for how it reveals the crafty aspect of his character that he relies on to get through some of the treacherous terrain he travels on the way to self respect and identity. Note how guilelessly he presents this unflattering moment and how much it tells us about him. Can’t many of us relate to that enterprising moment in childhood when we knew mom/dad was weak?
Our car boiled over again just after my mother and I crossed the Continental Divide. While we were waiting for it to cool, we heard from somewhere above us, the bawling of an airhorn. The sound got louder and then a big truck came around the corner and shot past us into the next curve, its trailer shimmying wildly. We stared after it. “Oh, Toby,” my mother said, “he’s lost his brakes.”
The sound of the horn grew distant, then faded into the wind that sighed in the trees all around us.
By the time we got there. Quite a few people were standing along the cliff where the truck went over. It had smashed through the guardrails and fallen hundreds of feet though empty space to the river below, where it lay on its back among the boulders. It looked pitifully small. A stream of thick black smoke rose from the cab, feathering out into the wind. My mother asked whether anyone had gone to report the accident. Someone had. Nobody spoke. My mother put her arm around my shoulder.
For the rest of the day she kept looking over at me, touching me, brushing back my hair. I saw that the time was right to make a play for souvenirs. I knew she had no money for them, and I had tried not to ask, but now that her guard was down I couldn’t help myself. When we pulled out of Grand Junction I owned a beaded Indian belt, beaded moccasins, and a bronze horse with a removable, tool-leather saddle.
In her book Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin contrasts herself to others. She let’s us know who she is by telling us who she isn’t:
Unlike some people who like to go out, I love to stay home. This may be caused by laziness, anxiety, or xenophobia, and in the days when my friends were happily traveling to Bolivia and Nepal . . . what I liked best was hanging around the house.
I am probably not much fun as a traveler, either. My idea of a good time abroad is to visit someone’s house and hang out, poking into their cupboards if they will let me.
Who you are on the page and what you present depends on your audience and your intent for the story. What you would write for your grandchildren would probably be different from what you would write for a war journal.
In her Great Courses class, Writing Creative Nonfiction, Professor Tilar Mazzeo uses dating ads as an example for honing the details you would use about yourself to interest a partner. Think about what the following ads reveal about each person:
SWEET LADY, mother and now grandmother. Interesting and interested in the world. Scientist, birdwatcher, intrigued by beautiful art and smart people. Still loves fast cars. Active mind. Decent soul. Hopes to meet accomplished, responsible, sensible, hopelessly handsome man for good laughs and much merriment.
ECCENTRIC EUROPEAN ADVENTURER, 72, former revolutionary, award-winning artist, trim, brilliant, lives part-time in Africa, part-time in France, married, seeks permanent mistress or second wife in complete agreement with the first. Requirements: 30-40, sensual, talented, open-minded.
SEXY LADY needs one decent guy: witty, responsible, available. So we can dream about all the things we once believed in and make love again like teenagers. In my mind, I will be young and beautiful. If you close your eyes, you will be too. We will dream together and you will read children’s stories and The Economist to me. All night, we will touch fingers and dream of soaring. Me, late 40s. You, as young as you wish to be.
1. Write your own Wanted poster. Model the description on Bass’s: Physical description followed by a one-line surprise.
2. Write about a specific time when something happened that you took advantage of to get what you wanted.
3. Make your own personals ads. Write one for a date, one for a job, one for your public media face. Notice how you have to fine-tune each of the adjectives depending on the purpose and audience.
If anyone would like to share their responses, please do. Love to hear how you’d be described on a wanted poster or a personals ads.
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