The grinding dogma of fifth-grade English teachers everywhere has done incalculable damage to the sensitive psyches of countless school children. One of the most onerous dicta of Miss Vera Strict was this: “Never use I when you write.” The calcified trauma of this lives on in otherwise normal adults.
Now why not use
first-person singular? Because it makes you look self-centered? That’s not the measure of effective writing. A more legitimate reason, perhaps, was that it kept in check the tendency for students to offer an overdose of mindless, inane opinions instead of presenting the results of the research they were actually supposed to be doing.
Here is the truth. What we say about ourselves can be some of the most compelling, engaging writing we will ever do. Why? Because our audience is made up of, wait for it, people. Not minds. Not computers. Not Wikipedia entries. And not fifth-grade teachers. No, it’s people. People with emotions and opinions and stories of their own. There is a connection made with our audience at a human level that charts and numbers and dates and facts cannot compete with.
Yes, this is also true when we tell stories of other people. But your audience will connect with you and therefore with all that you have to say, including your ideas, when you tell stories about yourself. So whether a book or article or blog or letter, first-person singular rules.
Can you do it too much? Yes, you can. If most of the stories in your book are about you, people may actually wonder if your content is true more broadly or if it is only valid for those of your particular gender, stage of life, profession, talents, education, experiences or social standing. Telling stories from a broad range of people will reinforce the general validity of what you have to say.
Also don’t write about yourself if a very intense episode is so fresh that you don’t have perspective. When a traumatic event is recent–like a death in the family, a divorce, an addiction, an act of violence, an accident–we may not have worked through it adequately for ourselves. Even if the event is two or three years old, we may not have healed enough spiritually or emotionally or relationally in order to know its meaning or to keep it from hijacking what we’re writing. This is where honest friends can help you know if it is too soon or not.
So, dear writers, don’t do it too much. Don’t do it when it’s too intense. But do it. Write about yourself. I do.
What are favorite first-person stories you’ve read?