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?
4 thoughts on “Write About Yourself”
Grandpa kissed Grandma, standing in front of the house. There were tears in their eyes, It was the day of their oldest daughter’s funeral. At the time I never thought anything about it, but you can imagine how startled I was some years later when my mother said, “That was the first time I ever saw Poppa and Momma kiss.” My grandparents were sort of like frontier people, stoic, hang in there until Hell freezes over, and keep on going. They helped to develop the area of Southeast Missouri and Northeast Arkansas. I can remember Grandma telling how her family moved from near Dyersberg, Tennessee to Southeast Missouri in 1900. They crossed the Mississippi at Cottonwood Point Ferry (the same Ferry that I would use in 1972, going to Northeast Arkansas to preach her funeral), traveling by covered wagon. Grandma told of hearing the wolves howl and the panthers scream at night as they camped out in the great swamps of that region.
Grandpa came to Southeast Missouri in 1904 from Vienna, Illinois, by way of a railroad to Cairo then up the Mississippi to a place where, if memory serves correctly, he crossed by a bridge somewhere. then traveled to Southeast Missouri to one of his brothers. He went to work as a cook in a lumber camp, met Grandma, and the rest is history.
Those settlers did such a good job of settling the country that students from that area which I met at Lincoln Univ. in Jefferson City, Mo., did not believe what I said about the great forests and swamps. In the last year I learned from a minister friend in Western Kentucky that the government offered land for sale in the areas mentioned for $2-4 an acre. It was then selling for $6-8 acre in western Tennessee, Kentucky, and Southern Illinois. The new settlers flooded into the area, took out the forests (Grandpa told of seeing men cut ice and stand waist deep in water and cut trees all day long), and turned that swamp land into some of the finest cotton farms in the nation during the 20th century.
As a child, I can remember Grandpa driving the team and the wagon with all of us in it (four of us plus him) up to Nimmons,Arkansas, where we caught the caboose of the Frisco freight train and rode it to Kennett, Missouri, did some shopping, and rode the train back to Nimmons.
Long, hot, hard days spent in the cotton fields from sunup to sunset, produced a people who were tough and could take a lot of pain. They were not given to public displays of affection, exhibiting, I think, the stoic attitudes of their fathers and mothers who were also settlers of a great frontier called the West.
When Grandpa kissed Grandma, I was perhaps 11 years of age. Years later, my mother’s comment startled me, because I had not thought of it at the time, being too preoccupied with childish things. But it was surprising as I had never seen such a thing before and not very often even after that funeral. Grief somehow had the power to reduce even frontier people to a willingness to express affection in a way of support to loved ones.
A great story, Jim. Thanks.
Given the title and first paragraph, I thought this was going to be about the annoying habit of some (far too many, IMHO) to refer to themselves in the third person. Nothing sounds more aloof and narcissistic to me than when someone refers to themselves as “this writer”. I stop reading immediately.
I agree with you, Brendt. Maybe it worked 50 years ago, but not today.
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