Me, Myself, and I

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Sure, we all learned the types of point of view in, like, third grade. But I was told something the other day during my Creative Writing Tutorial that crumbled everything that I thought I knew.

I’m a fan of the first person. Yes, there may be some editors and publishers out there who are cringing right now, but let me explain myself. To me, the first person point of view allows a kind of depth that is unachievable by any other viewpoint. You get to know intimately the tone and voice of your character. Sarcasm can come much more freely in the first person because the voice and emotion that sarcasm depends upon is omnipresent. Third person requires quotation marks and dialogue in order to make use of sarcasm.

We as humans were born to tell stories. It’s what you probably did two minutes ago to your roommate. It’s what you are texting to your mom right now. It’s what our ancestors did every night for fun. The myths they told, of course, almost always were in the third person. For example, Hercules did this great thing. Then, he beat up a lion. Then, he fell in love with the mysterious Meg… and so on.

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But, these people that historically were spoken of in third person were mostly gods or heroic figures of history or people who seemed larger than life. They are beings that we may aspire to resemble, but will never actually become them. In contrast, we always tell anecdotes of ourselves in the first person. This allows for a subjective perspective rather than objectively factual (remember Hercules did this, then he did that). As the words come out of our mouth, we have the ability to embellish the “I” as fancifully or plainly or victoriously or victimized-ly as we want. This unreliability of first person is what draws me to the viewpoint the most. I’m fascinated by the psychology behind human credibility. Can we really trust what we see? Or do feelings get in the way and we end up seeing what we want to see? What motivation does a character have of lying to his/her reader? Then again, what motivation do we humans have when we omit parts of the truth from the stories we tell? This doubt and uncertainty is what makes our characters the most human. This is what readers bond to when they read a first-person story – the humanness of the character. Essentially, this tenuous relationship between truth and story is what makes them read on and perhaps read a bit more closely.

Now to the mind-blowing. Turning in my ninth draft of a first person narrated story I’ve been writing, my professor says, “You can cut down on wordiness by letting the narrator do the talking and just have your character experience the events happening around her.” My eyebrows pinched together in confusion. “But aren’t my narrator and the main character actually the same person?”

“No,” she responded. *poof* went my brain and the lie I’ve been living.

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I asked my professor to give me an example. She explained: Your character, sitting in an airport, could say, “I saw the janitor drop his cell phone in shock.” But, if you get rid of the words “I saw,” what do you have left? The janitor dropped his cell phone in shock.

So, what do you achieve by omitting the words “I saw?” Well, a few things actually. First, you move the sentence and the action along, so your reader doesn’t get caught up in extraneous words. (This is along the same lines as why we are told to omit the words “I think” and “I believe” in academic papers). But, the crazy thing is that it leaves the sentence up to interpretation. Did the main  character see this happen or not? A writer can use this scene description to showcase other activities going on around the main character to heighten drama OR to draw attention away from the character for whatever reason OR to emphasize that something is happening simultaneously to the main character’s actions that the character may or may not have seen! This “showing” rather than “self-reporting” narrator gives the reader a VIP pass inside the scene, in the same vein as dramatic irony. It allows us to know more about the story and fictional world than the main character herself.

This discovery was especially timely because there is a sense of this narrative split in the movie “The Lady in the Van.”

In the (mostly true) film, the main character Alan Bennett (Alex Jennings) is a writer who allows a homeless woman (Maggie Smith)  to park and live inside her van in his driveway for 15 years. Although the plot itself has its own bizarre and unique qualities, I was struck by the choice to double Alan Bennett, much like Lindsay Lohan in the Parent Trap. Indeed, throughout the film, we see identical images of Alan Bennett next to each other, talking to each other, mostly arguing with each other. The two representations symbolize the split personalities between “the writer” and “the one who lives”, or the narrator and the experiencer. I’ve never seen this portrayed in a film before but it made me begin to understand what my professor was trying to tell me in class. And perhaps it begins to explain my own psychology as a writer. There indeed is always one hand on reality and one hand writing the next sentence.


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