It's been a perfectly lovely evening. The food was delicious; the conversation lively. You're just reaching for another glass of wine when suddenly, without warning, your host whips out (gasp!) his vacation photos. Halfway through your vicarious descent into the Grand Canyon, your pulse slows to the mule's sure-footed plod, and you imagine being airlifted to safety by an urgent call from the baby sitter.
Remember that feeling as you approach your keyboard. That's exactly how a reader feels in the middle of a poorly executed first-person article.
Despite the journalism-school admonition that "the story is not about you," writers often can't resist the urge to put themselves right in the middle of it. In the hands of a skilled nonfiction writer, the first-person voice is a valuable tool to set a scene or describe a person. In the hands of an amateur, we're back at the Grand Canyon.
Don't leave your readers begging for an escape route. Follow these guidelines for effective first-person writing.
THE PERSONAL ESSAY
Even when the story is about you, it's still not about you. A good personal essay offers insights that readers can use in their own lives. It's not your moment to reveal every mundane detail of yours. Save that for your journal.
Right from the beginning, you need to make a connection with your reader—you may even address her directly using "you"—and assure her that the article will make a point. A writer using the pseudonym of Paula Michaels understood this well in a personal essay published in the August 2001 issue of Parenting. She led by acknowledging the reader's predisposition not to read her story.
This is a scary story, a cautionary tale.
It's the kind of story that, a year ago, I would have turned away from because, after all, what did a story about a sick baby have to do with me?
The point is clear from the first two paragraphs: Parents will learn something from reading this woman's story. She continues with background information that's directly relevant to the point:
When Zach was born, he was perfect. His Apgars were 9.9. He was 7 pounds, 4 ounces and 21 inches long. He had fine blond hair and those murky blue infant eyes that look like the bottom of the ocean. He breastfed easily, and he grew. He did all the things he was supposed to do, at all the right times. He smiled at 7 weeks. Rolled over at 12.
When we visited Zach's pediatrician for his once-a-month well-baby visit, her favorite word, when asked any question, was normal. She'd say it in a singsong voice. It became a joke between my husband and me. Normal, normal, normal, David and I would sing as we left her office.
I can pinpoint the day we stopped singing normal so happily: It was a weekend afternoon in early fall. We were sitting at the kitchen table, interviewing a baby sitter, and I had Zach, then 6 month old, in my arms. Suddenly he flung his arms up, and his eyes rolled back slightly.
Notice that Michaels doesn't share personal musings about becoming a mother or stories about the baby's cute behavior that only his grandmother would find interesting. She sets up Zach's history as a "normal" baby so that other parents of "normal" babies understand how quickly everything can change.
Zach's pediatrician continued to insist he was normal despite Michaels' gut instinct that something was terribly wrong. But her determination got Zach an appointment with a neurologist who diagnosed and treated his rare seizure disorder before he'd suffered any brain damage. The message to readers: Trust your instincts.
Staying focused on the reader can be tricky, however, and writers can inadvertently slide into self-absorbed essay writing. Watch for these common first-person pitfalls:
• Too many details. You can call this the "First, there were dinosaurs" approach. Make every effort to tell the story as succinctly as possible. Readers don't need a step-by-step account of your thought processes; often the bottom line will suffice. Michaels probably discussed her worries with family, friends and a lady in line at the grocery store, but she didn't write about it—ultimately, she told us just what was necessary to move the story forward.
• Too many "I"s. Take stock of how many times you use the "I" sentence construction, as in I felt ... I watched ... I wondered. Too many "I"s are a good indication that you're too internally focused.
• Too personal. Leave out thoughts or anecdotes that only close friends or family are likely to get a kick out of. Unless your husband's outstanding work-performance evaluation or your teen's SAT scores directly relate to the point of the story, don't include them. (Bonus tip: Nobody appreciates them in your holiday letter, either.)
The first-person voice can be a useful writing device in profiles—but only if the technique is used to provide insight into the subject's personality or character. If you put yourself in the story just to tell us that you conducted the interview at Starbucks, you've missed the mark.
In the May 2002 issue of GQ, writer Elizabeth Gilbert uses first person to help describe Jim MacLaren, an unlucky hero who became a quadri-plegic after suffering not one, but two harrowing traffic accidents. (The article, titled "Lucky Jim," was a finalist in the American Society of Magazine Editors' 2003 National Magazine Awards.) Gilbert puts herself in the story because her interactions with MacLaren paint a vivid picture of him.
I first spoke with Jim MacLaren on the telephone one morning in the spring. I told him I wanted to write about him.
"For GQ?" he asked, and laughed. "OK, but I don't really look the part these days. Armani doesn't exactly make Velcro flies on their pants, you know?"
Gilbert goes on to describe meeting MacLaren on the campus of the Pacifica Institute, the Santa Barbara university where he was working on a doctorate in mythology and psychology.
He was in a wheelchair, but he didn't look anything close to helpless. He was a big and handsome man, broad through the chest. He was wearing shorts, and there was a peglike prosthesis attached to the stump of his left leg. His other leg was muscular and tan. A catheter bag half filled with urine hung from the side of his wheelchair, and a thin hose snaked up from it and disappeared under his shorts. He was lighting a cigarette with fingers that were frozen into painful-looking talons, bent and twisted like little Joshua trees. I rolled down my window.
"Jim MacLaren, I presume?"
He smiled. "How'd you recognize me?"
"You smoke?" I said.
"Don't start," he warned.
Gilbert could have just told us that MacLaren is a strong man with a good sense of humor who isn't going to be pushed around, literally or figuratively. It was much more effective, however, for her to show us his strength and humor by letting her conversations with MacLaren speak for themselves.
Gilbert doesn't, however, use the first-person voice to tell us anything about herself, as this student journalist mistakenly does:
After transferring to Northern Kentucky University this summer to play baseball, I had the privilege to meet [John Smith]. He coached the team I played for.
Gilbert also avoids extraneous details, unlike this student journalist:
John and I met at local fast-food restaurant, where he arrived wearing a red T-shirt and a pair of jeans.
Most important, Gilbert weaves the first-person voice through the entire article. A common mistake of inexperienced journalists is to jar the reader with one unexpected first-person interjection, then return to narrative voice as if nothing had happened.
In a story about a family who lovingly restored an old house, a Cincinnati writer inserted one first-person sentence about a quarter of the way through the piece. After an anecdotal lead and nut graph about how the homeowners acquired the house, the writer tosses in this s entence:
Bridget and her mom, Carol, are just as [eager] to tell me the stories behind the house as they are to give me a tour.
Because the rest of the article is written entirely in narrative voice, the reader is thrown off course with the introduction—and unexplained departure—of a new "character" into the story. If you're important enough to be in the scene at any point, you'd better stay there for the whole show.
THE SOFT NEWS STORY
If you were there when an earthquake rocked San Francisco's Candlestick Park during the World Series, or when hundreds of fans lined up at a local bookstore to be the first to own the newest Harry Potter book, the story may best be told through your eyes. A news event can be described quite eloquently from the perspective of an unobtrusive writer (emphasis on unobtrusive).
Amanda Ripley was in Paris in August 2003 when temperatures soared above the normal 75 degrees to a smoldering 104 degrees. Her account of the hottest weather on record for Paris, published in a Time magazine article titled "Do Parisians Perspire?" creates a vivid snapshot for readers of what she calls "a time when the French briefly lost their cool." Here are a few excerpts:
I went to the movies, naively, only to find the theater humid and stale. On a Friday at 11 p.m., I found myself in a supermarket on the Champs Elysees. It was packed. We all browsed in slow motion, feigning interest in frozen chicken.
There were no fans left—anywhere ... Unable to let go of the fan idea, my husband and I contemplated buying a hair dryer with a cool setting and rigging it into a fan. We opted for two bottles of glass cleaner instead; we filled them with cold water and madly doused each other. At night this strategy yielded a good 20 seconds of cool, during which we hoped to God to fall asleep ...
A week after the heat wave began, the government set up a hotline offering advice on how to cope. I tried calling but it was closed for the evening, like any good French bureaucracy. Senior officials, all of whom had vacated Paris for August, tried to downplay the drama. But by Thursday, the number of French people killed from heat-related causes was estimated at 3,000.
From Ripley's vantage point, the reader can almost feel the Paris heat. Any news story would have carried the statistic of 3,000 heat-related deaths, but the image of Ripley and her husband spritzing themselves with squirt bottles gives the statistic a human face.
But just like Michaels in the Parenting article, Ripley refrains from sharing anything about herself that's unrelated to the heat wave. We don't know how long Ripley and her husband have lived in Paris, we don't know what her husband does for a living—Ripley understands that we don't care. She's simply taking us on a journey to Paris during an extraordinary week ... and it's much more interesting than that slow mule to the Grand Canyon.
Marnie Engel Hayutin teaches journalism at Northern Kentucky University and works as a freelance writer.