The first person “I” is a natural point of view for memoir and personal essays. But writers take a risk in using “I” – the risk of making themselves vulnerable and exposing something about themselves that readers won’t like. As an editor of memoir, there have been times when I thought the first-person narrator was a little self-absorbed, judgmental, or stuck in a refrain of blame. I feel that it’s part of my role to gently ask the author about their intentions in telling the story this way and to talk about possible consequences for their relationships. These conversations led me to ponder the risks and rewards of writing in the first person. What qualities endear me to a first-person narrator?
Here are my thoughts.
Be as open as the story requires.
When you use “I,” you may feel that your entire history and identity converges in this slim pronoun. But readers who don’t know anything about you won’t know anything about you beyond what you reveal on the page.
How much you should reveal depends on the story. If you are writing about a subject that involves research, the “I” might not be central. The first-person narrator could be mainly an observer of a historically significant event. In that case, readers don’t need to know much about your private life. But if you are writing about your personal story, readers will expect to get to know you.
Be aware of degrees of distance in first person point of view.
When you write in first person (“I”) instead of third person (“she”), you’re making a choice about where you stand in relation to the story. But even within first person POV, there are more choices to make.
Think of first person as a continuum:
objective observer → observer with opinions → narrator is lightly involved in story → narrator is the subject of the story
Writers of creative nonfiction have described these degrees of distance in various ways. Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, in Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, distinguish between “first person minor” and “first person major.” Lee Gutkind, in You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, uses the image of a pendulum from public to personal writing.
It’s important to be aware of how you are using first person, because your choice will deeply affect your tone, your attitude toward the story, and the reader’s relationship with you, the narrator.
The “I” narrator should reveal her contradictions, doubts, and faults – without getting stuck in shame and self-loathing. You have to know yourself, but you also have to be kind to yourself. Kindness comes, I think, with gaining some emotional distance on the unnamed mass of feelings that can weigh us down. Finding the right balance – being self-reflective without being self-absorbed – is one of the hardest things about writing in the first person.
Question the received story of yourself.
We all turn our life into stories to try to find a through-line of meaning. We repeat these stories to ourselves and to others so often that they become automatic. We also inherit stories that other people tell us about ourselves. These narratives can keep us in a box. To break free of the story you’ve wrapped yourself in, ask yourself if it’s true. For some reason, it’s much easier to believe negative stories about ourselves than positive ones. What if you created a different story? It would be at least partially true – as true as the negative one.
One way to see your story differently is look at the bigger context, for instance, how your story is emblematic of growing up in the suburbs, belonging to a visible minority, or living with a mental illness. Question your responses to events, and look back on your younger self with a curiosity and compassion.
Think on the page.
We turn to creative nonfiction not just for true stories, but to see what the narrator thought about what happened. This revelation of consciousness is the great gift of memoir and personal essays. Reading them, we feel less alone.
Judith Barrington, in Writing the Memoir, refers to “the musing voice,” and Phillip Lopate, in To Show and To Tell, refers to the “intelligent narrator.” Both writers believe that self-reflection is an essential element of creative nonfiction. Writers of fiction are told “show, don’t tell.” But writers of creative nonfiction should tell. This “telling voice” infuses first-person stories with a double perspective – the younger protagonist back then, and the mature narrator now. We want to see the narrator making connections and thinking through the meaning of events.
Look outside yourself.
Ground your story in something outside yourself, whether that’s a physical setting, a span of time, other people (characters), a theme or an idea, or even books that changed your thinking. See yourself in relation to this person or thing. Be inquisitive about the world around you, and describe the outside sources of your story as accurately as you can.
Perhaps you are writing to release yourself from a traumatic past. If the source of the pain was external, it’s tempting to blame those responsible and to portray yourself as a victim. If the source was internal – for instance, I was an anorexic teenager – the compulsion is self-blame. Neither response – blaming yourself or blaming others – will endear you to readers. You have to work through your emotions before sharing them with the world.
Write in your own voice.
So much has been written about “finding your voice” that the phrase has become a cliché. You might feel tremendous pressure to be an original, new voice, because that’s what publishers want. If you are at all lacking in self-confidence, the belief that you must have an “original voice” can paralyze you.
But “voice” doesn’t need to be such an intimidating idea. Your “voice” is what you hear in your head. On the page, your voice becomes the “I” telling the story. Your voice expresses something essential about who you are, and readers become attached to this quality. They feel that they know this “I” person.
Sometimes “finding your voice” involves unlearning an academic, objective style that you learned in school. Try reading your work aloud. Does it sound like you? If you stumble over words or syntax (the way the words are put together), you’ll want to revise what you’ve written.
I know – easier said than done! But there is nothing more enjoyable than reading beautiful prose – prose that stops you in your tracks. It’s such a marvel that you read it again. There are many books on how to craft sentences, and it’s a subject I’d like to explore one day in a series of blog posts. For now, I’d like to leave you with a paragraph from Susan Scott’s essay, “Zion’s Children,” published in the anthology Body & Soul: Stories for Skeptics and Seekers. In this passage, she realizes that she has deceived herself by thinking that she could break free of a cult-like community by getting married.
The words are simple and the sentences short. The single syllables, repetition, rhyme and assonance have a hypnotic effect, leading us inexorably from “sky” to “dark.”
If you write in the first person, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Does writing in the first person come naturally to you, or do you feel self-conscious about it? Do you create a persona or character, or do you feel that your whole self is represented in “I”?
BOOK REVIEW: Between You & Me, by Mary Norris
Should it be “short, balding man” or “short balding man”? “Bad hair day” or “bad-hair day”? Mary Norris, a copy editor at The New Yorker for over thirty years, relishes these sorts of editorial decisions.
Editing books is the best job in the world. I'm always learning new stuff! In this blog, I review books and share my thoughts on writing and editing. I hope you share some stuff, too.