The PaperGirl Persona


If you’re reading this, I’ll bet there are some books in your house. It doesn’t matter what kind, but I’ll bet there’s more than 20. I don’t have hard data on this, but I was at an event in Indiana a few weeks ago and met a number of PaperGirl readers who were clearly book-owning people. It was a vibe.

If you’re like me, the books you’ve kept for years in your living room or den or office you’ve kept for an obvious reason: They matter. I think the books we keep are meaningful because they reflect to us and everyone else who we are — and/or maybe who we’d like to be. Our bookshelves speak volumes (I know, I know!) because they’re essentially an exhibit we’ve curated. The books on a person’s shelf say, “I’m a hopeless romantic”, or “My political views are central to who I am”, or “I’m a Christian”, or “I’m an atheist”, or “I’m an actor” or “Science fiction helps me deal with reality.” What do your books say about you? Maybe there are so many books on your bookshelves, they’re groaning under the weight of all that paper. In that case, what your books say is: “I can’t throw books out.” That’s your answer: You’re a person who can’t bear to let go of books.

The books on my shelves cover a lot of ground. I’ve got anthologies of humor writing wedged in next to a pristine set of Quiltfolk magazines, the ones I refuse to mark up, make notes in, or review incessantly so that the next issue will be better than the last. On the other shelf, I’ve got everything Camille Paglia has ever published. Next to all that is (for example) a collection of Saul Bellow letters and two or three Nabokov novels … which butt up against a tiny portion of my quilt history library. (The rest is in my basement storage unit at the moment.) To an outside observer, this quilt history/cultural fireband/chuckle fest/Lolita mix is super weird, but to anyone who knows me, the books on my shelves makes perfect sense: My library, myself. And it’s the same with you.

However mishmashed the subcategories may be, there is one prevailing genre within my shelves: Nearly everything fits into the genre of personal narrative. Personal narrative is nonfiction that comprises memoir, autobiography, diary, personal essay, and certain longform journalism. As a writer and reader, this stuff is my jam. It’s been this way since I was in high school. I don’t check novels out from the library, I don’t buy them, and I don’t read the few I still have in my possession. Why?

The way I figure, it’s unfettered reality I want — the “straight tea”, as the kids say. I’m curious about people’s direct experience being a human and if a person writes about that experience as honestly and thoughtfully as they can, I want to read that. In fact, I’m desperate to read it. Everyone has way, way more to learn than they think they do, and I know I’ll learn from people if I can access their respective alternate realities. Of course I realize that novels offer alternate realities, too, and that novels can weave reality in a lovely, different way, but I don’t want a surrogate. I don’t want a (however well-wrought) fabrication standing in between me and the story. I’m too impatient, as usual, but I’m also unapologetic about this: I want my reality uncut. Mainline me.

There are giants of the personal narrative genre. These people are my heroes. Those giants include James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, Susan Sontag, Michel de Montaigne, Zadie Smith, Christopher Hitchens, David Foster Wallace … and Vivian Gornick.

It’s that last name we’re going to spend the rest of our time with, because Vivian Gornick wrote a book I have kept on my shelf for many years and I shall always keep it on my shelf. It’s like an old, worn, freshly washed bathrobe. The other day, needing one of those, I pulled that book down and leafed through, for old times’ sake. The content I found did two things: 1) it caused me to think about the books we keep on our shelves and 2) it broke open why I can’t get a grip on this blinkin’ blog.

First things first: Vivian Gornick is a genius at writing. Her writing is efficient and elegant — think Einstein’s theory of relativity. Her sentences have zero fat. There is no ego, no flourish. She doesn’t stand for that crap. She observes everything and then she writes down the truth of it, however mundane. She writes books and essays and critical reviews and they will inspire you and also depress you if you’re a writer, because guess what? There’s only one Gornick, baby. If you want a place to start, read her memoir about her relationship with her mother, Fierce Attachments. 

Okay, okay, so Gornick wrote a book a few years ago called The Situation and The Story: The Art of Personal Narrative. When I was teaching writing at the University of Chicago, I used this book a lot, especially in the blogging class and the storytelling class. The book is one big revelation, but perhaps the biggest, baddest one is essentially this: to write about your life, you have to craft a persona, because a persona will give you the voice you need to write the story of your life. Here’s an excerpt from the book, and I know I’m just diving in here, but I looked hard for the right passage so I hope you’ll track with me on this:

“The writing we call personal narrative is written by people who, in essence, are imagining only themselves in relation to the subject in hand. … Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being a narrator is fashioned whose existence on the page is integral to the tale being told. This narrator becomes a persona. Its tone of voice, its angle of vision, the rhythm of its sentences, what it selects to observe and what to ignore are chosen to serve the subject; yet at the same time the way the narrator — or the persona — sees things is, to the largest degree, the thing being seen. 

To fashion a persona out of one’s own undisguised self is no easy thing … Yet the creation of such a persona is vital in an essay or a memoir. It is the instrument of illumination. Without it there is neither subject or story. To achieve it, the writer of memoir or essay undergoes an apprenticeship as soul-searching as any undergone by a novelist or poet: the twin struggle to know not only why one is speaking, but who is speaking.”

This blog has existed since 2005. For more than a decade, save for a few periods when I’ve gone dark — as I’ve been lately — I’ve shared my life here and I have told you the truth. I am vulnerable here. I don’t bullshit you. I respect you, I respect myself, and I tell the truth and because of that respect, I cannot write things that are fake. The times when the blog has evaporated for a spell, it’s evaporated precisely because I refuse to be inauthentic, and sometimes it’s impossible to be authentic without turfing out. Put another way: If what’s going on with me is deeply private, if it is not for public consumption, yet, if it would compromise other people, if it simply makes no discernible sense yet, or if I’m just plain too scared to tell you, I don’t know how to write PaperGirl. 

PaperGirl is fun. Yes, she’s vulnerable and open. We know that. I talk about sad stuff and bad stuff and gross stuff. But she bounces back. She’s a total dork, a complete spaz. She has perspective and she knows who she is. I love PaperGirl. She’s definitely real. She’s me. She’s a part of me, anyway, which means PaperGirl is … a persona. Absolutely authentic, no fake-out, no bullshit. But a specific voice from me who can take “the raw material of [her] own undisguised being” and tell you about it using a specific “tone of voice”, “angle of vision”, and with a certain rhythm to her sentences. I don’t want to get too writer-rabbit-hole-y on you — too late — but believe me: For years and years, when it was time to sit down and write PaperGirl, I mentally and involuntarily slipped on my PaperGirl shoes, cracked my knuckles, and voila: I could write about my life.

I’m afraid that persona has left the building.

Wait, wait! I don’t mean that in some dour, gloomy way. It’s weird and yes, it is sort of sad: I liked her. I liked that goofy, chummy, weird, sensitive, earnest PaperGirlI hung out with her a long time, and so did you, and I love you very much, and she loved you very much. But after everything that happened this past winter and everything that has happened since, I can’t get those shoes on my feets. They do not fit. I observe things constantly that I want to tell you about, every single day, but I can’t get it on the page/screen. For awhile, every time I saw something I would normally zip out to you, I’d think, “Yes. That’s it. Tonight I can blog. Yes, I have to write about that, I have to share that. I love that and they’ll love that.” But that night, I’d try to put the shoes on and … I couldn’t write in that PaperGirl voice anymore and that was hard, but even harder was that I didn’t know what voice would take its place. Or if one would. That is a very scary thing for a writer and for a person.

The good news is simply that I’ve figured all this out, and I send my regards to Vivian Gornick. And because I’ve figured it out — that it’s impossible for me to blog like I used to because I’ve outgrown the PaperGirl persona/narrator — this means I can let myself off the hook. I’m not a bad blogger, I’ve just got a concussion. I’ll always write about my life; I just have to figure out who’s doing the writing.

In conclusion: If I let myself off the hook for not being “PaperGirl”, I think I can blog. I think so. There’s an opening. Thank you for all the emails and the comments and everything. You people are amazing. I’m doing pretty good and oh man do I have so much to tell you, big things and little things. I’m bursting to tell you, but I just don’t know what the PaperGirl 2.0 voice is, yet. I’ll get her. I’ll catch her. I get back on my feet. I’ll practice.

This is me, practicing.

89 Responses

  1. Melissa
    | Reply

    Girl….you just do you! Whatever voice it happens to be. The girl you were yesterday, introduced you to the woman you are today and will introduce you to a new self tomorrow. Life is a journey and change is going to be in all of it!

    • Melissa
      | Reply

      Well said, Melissa. Mary, you’ve got this!

    • Ronda Parsons
      | Reply

      Well said. My feelings exactly.

    • Cindy
      | Reply

      Amen Melissa!!! You said it perfectly!

      Mary, we love you !!! And we are so ready for the next chapter of Mary whenever you are.

    • Marissa
      | Reply

      Melissa – you hit the nail on the head.

      Mary, you’ve got this. The next chapter will be what it is, and we thank you for sharing it with us.

  2. Lynne
    | Reply

    So glad to see a post from maryfons and know she is doing what she does best!! Writing!! Hope we get to have more soon, take care of maryfons first !!

  3. Janet
    | Reply

    Give me a second….coming down to Earth from dancing on air. I just read a post from one of my Very Favorite People.

    Welcome back! Get that cup of tea. Make yourself comfortable.

    So glad to hear from you Miss Mary. And, to be honest, I understand only too well the issue you write of, but, to be even more honest, I don’t care what voice you use. As long as it is yours.

    I’ve missed you, worried about you, fretted about you and finally just decided to give you the space you needed to do what you needed to do.

    Your thoughts always provoke. Your words often make me smile. Your observations provide insight into things I had never contemplated in quite that way before. If at all.

    So, what’s new?

    • Tessa
      | Reply

      I miss You, my friend I’ve never met in person, and I’m happy to hear from you. Take you time and be patient with yourself. We’ll be here when you’re ready to share your stories again.

    • Alice
      | Reply

      Perfectly said. I agree. You come back, girl, when you’re ready.

  4. Pam
    | Reply

    It made me so happy to see and then read your blog. I look forward to your new self, your new voice, when you’re ready.

  5. Carol
    | Reply

    Missed you and looking forward to reading you again, whenever that may be.

  6. Karen M K
    | Reply

    I miss you regularly but take time to find you. I am lost at this time also. My mother passed away August 1 and my mother in law ( whom I have known since I was 6 years old) passed away August 25. I am lost.

    • carol vega
      | Reply

      Karen…so sorry to hear about your mom and MIL, and sorry to for your ‘”lostness”..
      but we are all here and hear you, we are the Papergirl Peeps…it is ok to feel the loss
      but just know that if you need to talk we are here to listen and if it needs to be private:
      i have lost my mother too.

      holding you up-

    • Lindsey
      | Reply

      Hugs. Time passing will help.

    • Barbara
      | Reply

      Karen, always remember, to feel loss is to have loved. This reply is also a hug.

  7. Alicia
    | Reply

    I’ve lost my voice too. I’ve had a traumatic few years, and it’s hard to communicate sometimes. I’m not who I was, nor am I who I will be, but there’s something of me in the journey and on the cusp. I hope that you will heal and find your voice. Best wishes to you.

  8. Mandy Laseter
    | Reply

    Oh, there you are, Mary! Good to hear from you! I love your words and how you put them together. I would read your grocery list, because I know you would make it interesting. Papergirl is still there. She is evolving as we all do. Very best wishes to you!

  9. Mary Ann
    | Reply

    So glad to see this Mary. And I will wait patiently for 2.0.

  10. Gina
    | Reply

    Your life experiences have helped you outgrow PaperGirl’s shoes. Do you wear the same shoes you wore in kindergarten? tenth grade? Or even high school? No.
    You outgrew them all. If not in size, then in taste or function. You will find your new shoes, Cinderella, I am sure of it.
    Much love, nice to hear from you again.
    You have been missed.

  11. Dorothy
    | Reply

    We all live, grow and change. Go in peace and most of all be happy with yourself. Come back to “us” when all things are in their right place with you

  12. Candy
    | Reply

    Just keep on keeping on….we will wait.

  13. Sue Kelly
    | Reply

    Does this mean that you’re shutting down your current Paper Girl blog?

    • Mary
      | Reply

      Ah, no, dear Sue! Just finding that new voice with it. 🙂 xo Mary

  14. Cathy
    | Reply

    Love you no matter who you’re writing as!

  15. Jennifer Reinke
    | Reply

    Hi! So good to hear from you. You just take all the time you need–can’t wait to hear all the news from the next chapters. You are still in my prayers Mary.

  16. Marj and Jim
    | Reply

    We have always enjoyed the Paper Girl persona, Mary, but simply put, it is you that we like.

  17. Liz Flaherty
    | Reply

    It’s nice to see you. I’d never heard–or read–the thing about developing a persona. I write essays and a column and even though I’ve always striven to make it authentic, I always “take a shower first,” to present the clearest and cleanest voice I can. So, yeah, persona. Thanks for sharing that.

  18. Mj Snyder
    | Reply

    Whoever you are in this moment, is perfect. Keep writing ❤️

  19. Jean Morton
    | Reply

    Mary, this is one of the most beautifully written, truly honest emails I’ve read. Please keep writing your blogs, in any persona that fits you. I’m just a reader, and a quilter, and you are inspiring to this 70+ lady!

  20. Mary E Spriet
    | Reply

    Sounds like another phase of your life! We all go through that. Life takes sooooo many unexpected twists & turns, and we just have to adjust. We figure out how to live & thrive in a new reality. Sometimes it’s painful and sometimes it’s glorious. Just keep on…….keeping on! (As they say)

  21. Lou McCalla
    | Reply

    So glad to hear from you! Evolve is what we are supposed to do…. right? Not many are the same as we were a year ago or last week or even yesterday! Keep doing what you are doing and we will be happy to see what is yet to be!

  22. Barbara
    | Reply

    My eyes lit up when I saw an email from you. I understand how you feel, and I will be on this end when you’re ready to write in whatever way makes you feel good. Miss you Mary.

  23. Susan
    | Reply

    Welcome back! Your blog has been like a fresh breeze, such a delight to read every time! Can’t wait to get to know PaperGirl 2.0.

  24. Nan R
    | Reply

    So relieved to hear from you again–I’ve fretted and worried.

  25. Nancy Binder
    | Reply

    So happy to see your post! Maybe you’re on the path to PaperWoman…

  26. Martha
    | Reply

    Picture me, sitting quietly, like Patience on a Monument —– ’til 2.0 appears.
    P.S. Today I LOVED your Carl Larsson (sp?) painting; makes waiting easier.

  27. Sue
    | Reply

    This was a shock this morning to see a post from paper girl! As long as
    life is good for you that is all that matters. Of course we have questions about your new husband, your puppy, if there is one, and want you are doing out in the world. Perhaps when you are ready, you will let us in. Until then enjoy your life!

  28. Helen Marie
    | Reply

    Love is love. You are you. Hello, Dolly!

  29. Nancy P
    | Reply

    Mary, it’s wonderful to hear your voice again. I was thinking about you recently and was delighted to see you and your Mom on Public TV with Fons and Porter yesterday morning. I know your new life is busy, but will wait for you to feel up to writing regularly again.

  30. Laura
    | Reply

    Evolution. Be well. I look forward to your next post.

  31. Judith Lichens
    | Reply

    Missed you. Take care and hope to hear from you again soin

  32. Miss Daisy
    | Reply

    Miss seeing you quilting !!!

  33. Judy
    | Reply

    We all have missed and will be here for you when you return in whatever voice you have.

  34. Denise
    | Reply

    Wow! Raw! Perfectly human! I’m trying to reinvent myself too, and I thought I was alone. Now I know I am not. We will be here when you’re ready 2.0❤️

  35. Becki Morrison
    | Reply

    Take your time, be gentle. You are so worth waiting for!

  36. Lindsey
    | Reply

    Twenty years ago my brain short circuited, literally. It changed how I see and understand the world. It was weird. My sense of humor changed and I became more serious, but in a subtle way. It took time before the new me became comfortable with myself.
    Things happen, we change. Life moves forward and we learn to adjust. Hang in there, sometimes only time is needed to become comfortable with the new you. Your persons is in its cocoon and metamorphosing. We’ll wait.

  37. Debbie
    | Reply

    I stand with the others who say, “do you.” Totally, a new place, a new you, is perfectly ok. We would want nothing less.

  38. Wilma Bland
    | Reply

    The journey continues and you are finding your way through to wherever and who cares if you leave a wardrobe behind because it doesn’t fit, lacks your current style, or the colors are just not right for the current season. You are you in each moment and as the trip changes, we leave behind who we might have been earlier. Sometimes stagnating because we aren’t ready to let go of the parts that don’t fit anymore because we fear we won’t find new ones that do. Before we become one of the moss backed and/or hide bound, if we are really fortunate, we start to put the parts together regardless and get back to this wonder filled trip called living. maryfons, you will get there, just remember this is a trip you embarked on many moons ago and the destination has never been as important as the trip in and of itself. Take care, safe journey, and leave behind what doesn’t fit in one of those free libraries along the way.

  39. Norma Tanner
    | Reply

    The best part is that in sharing your search, you give us the courage to find our own TRUE selves. Thank you for that!

  40. Cathy
    | Reply

    I always enjoy your posts for the reasons you stated – it’s honest and real. You are a beautiful writer and hopefully saying “TTFN” (ta ta for now) to Paper Girl, you can say “Hello” to you new persona! Regardless, I will happily look forward to your emails!!!! xox

  41. Janie
    | Reply

    I’ve missed you! And I’m definitely not alone. Wherever and whenever, bring it on. As so aptly written above, life changes us every day so why wouldn’t our voice change as well.

  42. Glenda
    | Reply

    I always thought you were PaperGirl, just like my cat “writes” a column for the sewing shop newsletter. It’s just more fun in the third person. Keep being you, regardless of what name or persona you are.

  43. MrsB
    | Reply

    I hope you come back as whoever you want to be, and soon. Miss your writing. And nosy as to what you’re up to.

  44. Michele
    | Reply

    Hello Mary, and wow do I get you. I have had a few big big times in my life too. And yes, they led to a discontinuity in the narrative of my life. The “before” me and the “after” me. It takes a while to find yourself again over that inner, grieving voice, the one that longs for the familiar, no matter how inadequate that was. You can and will do this, and I look forward to reading whatever comes next.

  45. Li
    | Reply

    I have been checking regularly for your latest message. I knew it would be well thought out and appropriate. You exceeded my expectations again.

  46. Brenda King
    | Reply

    Dear Mary- I’ve missed you, and thought of you often. Don’t know what has been troubling you so badly, but hope you know how very loved and esteemed you are. Whatever the demons, please know I care, and want to continue our friendship, in what ever form it takes! Please take care of you first. I’ll be here waiting! Brenda King, Bend, Oregon

  47. Dana Chapman
    | Reply

    So glad to hear from you! Thanks for the update. You know (I’m from Iowa and so tend to be kindly and direct) I think you’re making it too hard. Just start. It will be fine.
    Hugs from Iowa!

  48. Nancy
    | Reply

    Practice is good. Don’t worry, we’ll wait.

  49. Linda
    | Reply

    Dear Mary,

    It has been cool getting to know you as a real person not just a quilter on TV.

    One thing that will never change about life, is that change is inevitable. We go through different seasons of life and we should not be feeling guilty when we move to a new season.

    I pray you find peace and will embrace a different focus with joy!

    God bless you!


  50. elizabeth a hinze
    | Reply

    You’ll find your voice again you’re too talented not to.
    I’ve missed you. It’s like the ending of a very good book
    where the heroine becomes a very special friend to you…
    Take care of yourself we love you
    and whatever shoes you put on
    we’ll love them : )

  51. Kathleen
    | Reply

    Love you

  52. Mary Lynn
    | Reply

    Dear Mary, it’s ok. Be you. We all love whoever that is.

  53. Barbara
    | Reply

    Your gift of words has been missed, after reading this you just want more. So will enjoy your posts whenever you write them. A wonderful insightful talent. Take care!

  54. Naomi Champagne
    | Reply

    O Mary !! It’s so wonderful to hear from you again !! I was so excited when I saw you had written to us again ! You do what you need to do Mary , for you ! Know that we love you !! Naomi

  55. Denise in PA
    | Reply

    So, so, so good to hear from you again! I can’t wait for 2.0! o:)

  56. Jeanann Montney
    | Reply

    Yay! So excited to be reading your post again. Your writing evolves as your life progresses. Thank you for sharing it with your public.

  57. Karen Curtis
    | Reply

    What ever voice it is I want to read it. ❤

  58. Patti-Ann Kubacki
    | Reply

    Mary you do what you need to do. We all change and evolve over time and that’s what you are doing. We will be here when you are ready. And you will be ready at some point, I’m certain of that.

  59. Bob Collis
    | Reply

    So good to hear from you!
    I’ve missed you, and worried about you.
    Look forward to your next post.

  60. Pamela Barnes
    | Reply

    You write. I will read. It is as simple as that.

    your fan,

  61. Kathleen BeBeau
    | Reply

    What ever and when ever you get that voice for blogging I’ll be reading.

    Thank you for being open and honest about all that goes on with your life, personal and professional.

  62. Nancy Bonaguro
    | Reply

    So glad to be reading your work again. If you don’t change as you age, you will never grow. Although we have never met (hope that will happen one day), we have much in common: quilting, Chicago, books! and even our health. Almost three years ago I suddenly developed UC, it has completely altered my life. Thank you for sharing so much of your life with all of us. It does make you more vulnerable, but it also has helped many to go on. Please continue to go on Mary.
    I so much enjoy reading your blog! P.S. Now the many books I have will be finding new homes as I am donating them to my local library, hoping others will enjoy them as much as I have.

  63. Leesa Fons
    | Reply

    Dear Girl,
    Delighted to see that you are back in your element and have put pen (metaphorically) to paper.
    Much love,
    Aunt Leesa

  64. Teagan
    | Reply


  65. Sharin
    | Reply

    Missed you.

    | Reply

    I normally “lurk” on your blog, reading and not commenting. This post has made me think, so I’m putting on my Mom hat here.
    You have gone through a total evolution this past year. So, it is only reasonable for your writing persona to evolve as well.
    You know your peeps will be here when you’re ready. Practice on us all you want, we can take it and we’re all looking forward to PaperGirl 2.0.

  67. Claire Popp
    | Reply

    I read this post simultaneously admiring it while also fearing that I was about to hear an “I’m breaking up with you”. I’m happy and excited to hear your next voice as you craft it, just never leave. Okay fine if you had to leave I would understand, I’m just sayin’ I’m glad you’re not ;P

  68. Lorel Maple
    | Reply

    Whatever the voice, your inner sincerity will shine. Deep breath…and take your time……..

  69. Jess Irwin
    | Reply

    You’re great and I love you. Take your time!

  70. Sue
    | Reply

    Chips! 🙂

  71. Karen
    | Reply

    So glad you will still be writing. You are so witty and insightful. Will be looking forward to seeing more from you no matter what voice you use.

  72. Karen
    | Reply

    So glad you will still be writing. You are so witty and insightful. Will be looking forward to seeing more from you when you are ready and no matter what voice you use.

  73. Kim Bourgeois Landry
    | Reply

    Bravo! I love your voice and love that you are breaking free. Blessings!

  74. Mark A. Vieira
    | Reply

    Mary, Just want to let you know my wife and I visited Winterset last Friday. Nice town.

  75. Kristin
    | Reply

    I’ve been wondering what you have been up to and figured you had a full plate or other stuff preventing you from posting. Whatever you share, whether it’s your breakfast, walks, deepest thoughts, it’s all good. Love you muchly! xoxo

  76. imr
    | Reply

    I wouldnt wanna sit on that orange chair !!! yike lol

  77. […] know what to wear because my current evolution is still in progress. It’s the same reason I can’t whip out a PaperGirl post like I used to: That person moved out, and it appears the other problem with losing your voice is losing your […]

  78. Judith
    | Reply

    We cannot be who we were yesterday nor can we always be who we will be tomorrow.
    Our persona constantly changes and thankfully it does this or we would be most boring. One gets tired of always being up or down or twirling whatever. Just be who you are today. We have loved the person of the past, the person of now and will love the person of tomorrow.

  79. Tracy Snyder
    | Reply

    It’s called growing, and you just have to do it. Keep it up, be patient with yourself, I know I will. By the way, I’m 64, watched you with your mum on TV when you were just a wee one! Look at you now!

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