The New York Times recently ran a rather depressing piece about the way college freshmen write and the difficulty of teaching them to write better. It seems they are bottled up inside themselves and have trouble freeing themselves to self-expression. Somewhere along the way, for example, they have absorbed the lesson that they cannot use the word I.
First person — telling a story in the voice of the protagonist — is a strong drug. It can lend your writing warmth and intimacy, and free you of the burden of imagining what’s going on inside every character’s head. Some of the greatest American novels, from Moby Dick to The Catcher in the Rye, are written in first person. Ditto great American non-fiction, in which the first-person voice is less a protagonist than a guide. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas comes to mind. Much of John McPhee’s work. And Gun Guys: A Road Trip.
More and more non-fiction magazine writing seems to contain licks of non-fiction, even if it’s as subtle as writing, “he told me,” instead of “he said.” Some writers and editors believe that it’s an effective way to put the reader in the room and make everybody in the story more human. It is also, arguably, more honest that leaving oneself out completely. If you’re going to describe, say, an ear-piercing factory whistle, you might need to explain to your readers how you know what that whistle sounds like. And once you’ve acknowledged that you know it first hand, it’s only honest to make a flesh-and-blood character of yourself so you’re not passing yourself off as some kind of spectral presence.
I’ve used licks of first person in my own non-fiction magazine writing. See the second half of “No Pulse” on the Articles page, for example. In the first half, I’m invisible — the omniscient narrator. Starting at about the word “drippy,” however, I, the writer, become as much a character as anybody else in the story.
It made sense at the time. As I was writing it, the article felt like it was getting down too deep in the techno-scientific weeds and needed more narrative leavening. Using first person allowed me, I thought, to make more complete characters out of the doctors and patients who were the real protagonists. You judge whether I got hooked on the strong drug of first person and overdid it.
A dollop of first person was essential to Gun Guys: A Road Trip because the book’s central conceit was that as a liberal, Jewish, east-coast Democrat who also likes guns, I had a unique perspective to explain both sides.
When I was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal in the early 1980’s, the paper had a handy rule by which we reporters lived. We could not only use first person but start an article with the word “I” — but only if we were shot in the groin reporting the piece. I’ve never seen a Journal story begin with “I,” thank heavens.