September 23, 2005



In Grammar Hell (E.B. White serving as guide to Thurber?), there will be a most horrific sight - a Royal We with a single Wild Hair up its Asses. Maybe you could get Ralph Steadman to illustrate. And I don't even want to imagine the tortures reserved for the singular use of "their," as in "A person could end up with a wild hair up their ass." Perhaps Maud could suggest something.

The Debt to Pleasure used the first person (and the narrator was less than angelic) to wonderful effect. He was completely self-absorbed - perfect.

Justine Musk

Karen, great posts. Thank you.

I've wrestled with first-person narrator and been defeated every time (except for a rare short story here and there). The examples of first-person narration I've admired and wanted to emulate have been exactly as you just described -- more focused on witnessing the life without rather than articulating the life within -- which I've been experimenting with in my own online journal, with varying degrees of success -- your post makes me want to tackle first person again in my fiction, now that I better understand (in the space of just a couple of paragraphs) the effect I'm striving for.

(Enjoyed BORDER DOGS by the way, and it has one of my favorite opening sentences).

the highway scribe

At least you're thinking about it. Woe to the editor of anything who must work their way through reams of poetry and prose and which people discuss what are their own vaguely disguised lives.

"I stepped out into the autumn morning,
my Volvo stationwagon
my golden retriever..."

We are all so special and interesting, you see.

the scribe thinks it's cultural. When he lived in Seville, every March the city would fill up with about 4,000 American students there on exchange. Their conversation, in which accompanying friends were used as friendly sounding-boards for their own personal stories (you guys, should I get the blue blouse?), always constrasted with that of the locals, because folks in this country are obsessed with their "personal basket" of concerns .

The secret is to use the "I" with an "eye" directed at everything surrounding as opposed to inward. Yes, you are your point of reference and prism, but what's of interest are those people, those events, those places.

You can speak for yourself, without talking about yourself.

John Shannon

For an incredibly thorough examination of all the possibilities and drawbacks of the I-narrator and every other sort, see Christine Brooke-Rose, "Narrating Without a Narrator," TLS, December 31, 1999. I've kept it on my desk for years and go back to it frequently.


Isn't it funny how we gravitate toward first or third person? First never occurred to me until the day the story came tumbling out and there was this "I" in charge. Since then, one problem I've discovered is that it's difficult to separate I from me. That I blog in the imperial we (creating the impression that there's a large army of elves operating behind the scenes) is a curiosity. I am generally only pompous in real life.

And since our last talk, my third person voice has resurfaced. It was like greeting an old friend -- one who chooses to withhold a few secrets.


I'm helping out a friend write her first book (as a writer who has just been published I feel grateful that I made it and thought I would help out others achieve their dream) and you're absolutely right when it comes to a novel written in the first person. The 'I' factor is driving me nuts and I'm unable to figure out how best to let her know that it might be better if she took a different tack, without being offensive. Any suggestions?

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