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First Person, Singular

“You can do that? You can put yourself in the story?”

“I don’t know any other way to write, not really. It’s what I do. But yeah, it’s your story, write it the way you want.”

Through a series of happy accidents I ended up teaching at the Midwest Writer’s Workshop in Muncie, Indiana. I was excited to go — after years of attending blogger’s conferences it was refreshing to be surrounded by people who were focused singularly on writing, regardless of subject matter, above all else.

The conference included sci-fi writers and young adult fiction writers (quite a few of those) and picture books for kids writers and historical fiction writers. I met a guy who co-writes a series of suspense novels and a pair of poets and a woman who teaches creative writing. There was a pretty fuzzy line between the faculty and the students; lots of the attendees had considerably broader writing resumes than I do, causing a serious bout of imposter syndrome. (Here’s a terrific Neil Gaiman keynote on exactly that topic.)

Almost everyone was there for the love of the word, though at every conference, you meet someone who is more concerned with the perceived markers of success than with the creation of beautiful work. At this conference, it was, “Yeah, but how do I get an AGENT?” The answer — start by doing some really great writing — was often met with a pause and then, obvious disappointment. There’s always that guy, isn’t there?

(Regarding getting an agent, it’s a bit more complex than “be an awesome writer”, but it’s not rocket science. It involves creating a pitch or proposal that doesn’t just showcase your writing, but also explains why your subject matter is relevant to today’s readers. If you’re interested in more on that topic, here’s great stuff from Jane Friedman on How to Write a Book Proposal.)

In the land of travel writing, no one has asked me once about the role the narrator plays. Ever. Over ten plus years of talking travel writing, not just at conferences, but over drinks in noisy bars and with friends who are sleeping on my couch and in the little chat windows of Facebook and GChat and in lengthy discussions in the comments on my blog, not one person has said, “Should I use another point of view? Am I getting in the way of telling a great travel story?”

On the intellectual playground of the Midwest Writer’s Conference, I was asked this repeatedly. “You can be in your own work?”

I was so grateful for that question. I’ve struggled with this issue. For me, the answer is, “Yes of course you can, but it’s important to consider why.”

The buttered toast fingerprints of my voice are all over my work. Everything is stained with rings from my coffee cup. All my writing is littered with the capital I. I’m not a reporter, I’m not a journalist. I strive to apply the tenants of journalism to my work — check the fucking facts, do some goddamn research, do not do not do not blindly accept things on face value, also, swear, because it’s old fashioned news roomy, and if you can wash that swearing down with bourbon, so much the better. But after all of that, I’m “just” a personal essayist so of course I’m in my stories.  Without me, I have no story. This obviously isn’t true for all writing, please don’t make that leap, but it is very true for most of my writing.

Under the umbrella of “work that pays the bills” I’ve done some content strategy. I have a colleague who describes this job as “Asking why about every single piece of content until the client punches you or comes up with an answer.” It’s good to err on the side of not getting punched, but it’s also good to push because if the client is defensive enough to punch you, well, you’re on to something, and it’s usually a bad reason. In corporate projects, sometimes, it’s “because that’s what the suits want.” That’s not a great reason but it does help you understand who’s driving.

When  you apply this line of thinking to your own work, things get messy. You can write yourself into the story because it is self-aggrandizing, you think it makes you look good. Because you can’t get out of your own head. Because you’re lazy and you haven’t given point of view a moment’s thought. You can also write yourself in because it is the only way you can effectively tell a story. I just finished reading Tracks by Robyn Davidson; she’s got to be in that story or there’s nothing. But the “I” can also be the narrator — the story isn’t about you, you’re merely the one telling it and doing so from a strong point of view.

kirkYou still need to ask yourself why even if you end up in a stupid “Why are you hitting yourself?” loop. Find the answer so you can stop doing that.

I’m a self taught writer schooled by very serious editors. I write first in my free range style and then, before submitting anything for review, I attempt to channel the meanest editors I know. What could I cut from this story? (That annoying Kirk animation, obviously.) What needs research and fact checking — did I do my homework? (No, writing from a personal point of view does not let you off the hook here.) And finally, is this thing all about me, me, me? Or is there more to it than that? (There’d better be.)

You can absolutely put yourself in the story. If you need permission to do so from someone who has just as much credibility as you do, I grant you mine; go forth and be present in your work.  But remember — just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Know why.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to scrub this for I – me  – mine references and see what I can delete.

Yep, that’s better. Now it’s your turn.

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7 Responses to “First Person, Singular”
  1. Lori says:

    Some of my favorite essays of yours are deeply personal reflections of your internal journey that accompanies your external travel.

  2. petra says:

    thanks for this. it confirmed a lot of things I had already considered but it’s good to hear it from someone else :)

  3. I said this on Twitter, but I’ll try it in more coherent form here…

    I default to third person, and generally find I/ we is best avoided unless there’s a good, specific reason to include it. The main reason is that, most of the time, the story simply isn’t about me – it’s about the place, or the experience or the other people mentioned in it.

    I also think the reader finds it easier to put him or herself into the story if (s)he doesn’t have to be forced into my shoes. And it’s usually easy enough to write without I/ we – just keep it in the active.

    For example, I’d say: “The eyes glare out of the bushes, watching intently, assessing potential prey…” reads stronger than “I see the eyes glaring in the bushes, watching me intently, assessing me as potential prey.”

    There are times when first person is absolutely right, though. When there’s an element of personal journey, a strong emotional connection that needs explaining etc. But a story doesn’t need that to be interesting or well-told.

  4. Susan says:

    Great piece, plus I love the Star Trek gif…is it sad that I knew instantly what episode it was from?

  5. Janelle says:

    As a YA writer (yes I was part of that group in Muncie), I write mostly in first person because the personal connection allows the reader to really feel to the story. I think that connection is awesome to take into travel. It makes the article appear less like “news” and more like an interesting tale that we want to curl up with and sink our teeth into and really get to know. I also think it helps to promote your name and brand awareness– not that you need help with that!

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