Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ross Coen: The First Person Bad Trip

Tom Wolfe, in his 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, describes an encounter between Ken Kesey, the ringmaster of the Merry Pranksters, and an obnoxious party crasher who invites himself along and proceeds to hijack not just the conversation but the very oxygen in the room.

“Why should I take your bad trip?” asks a polite but clearly exasperated Kesey.

The question stops the party cold. Up to this point in the book, page 161, it’s been all peace, love, and drug-aided understanding, but now Kesey demonstrates that even the freest of thinkers have their limits. This young man, in rudely making himself the center of attention, is operating on a few very precarious assumptions regarding the merits of his own trip and its usefulness to others.

Kesey’s question comes to mind when one considers just how prevalent, how maddeningly inescapable, are magazine features written in the first person.

I am standing on the gently sloping bank of the Kobuk River, such features often begin. Or, I reached for my toothbrush, suddenly aware I had forgotten to feed the cat.

We all do it. Heck, I’m doing it now in these blog posts. We write in the first person—I, me, and my. It’s a convenient rhetorical device—here’s what I saw, here’s what I heard, here’s what happened to me—but I maintain the first-person perspective is also the laziest and most arrogant form of writing.

It’s lazy because it requires almost no imagination on the part of the writer. You need only describe events as they happened to you, which requires only marginally more effort than thinking with your brain, which is what you were going to do in the act of writing anyway.

It’s arrogant for two reasons. First, the writer assumes his or her perspective is the most valid. The implicit suggestion is that anyone who reads the piece will have no trouble accessing that perspective. Second, it demands no real investment from the reader. First-person narration, by its very nature, places the reader outside the story looking in.

To paraphrase Kesey, why should I take your trip?

I flipped through a few recent issues of Outside, Esquire, Bicycling, Rolling Stone, and others, and almost without exception the features contain multiple first-person references. The worst offender featured a whopping thirty-nine uses of the words I, me, or my in the first two paragraphs. If the reader can’t gain a toehold on whatever platform the author’s thirty-nine I’s occupy, forget it. The essay is no longer about Topic X; it’s about the author’s experience of Topic X.

My intent here is not to embarrass anyone, so allow me to embarrass myself. A few years ago I submitted an essay to a publication that shall go unnamed, and I scrupulously avoided any first-person references in the first paragraph and used only a handful in the rest of the piece. When it was published the editor had revised the intro so that the first word was…you guessed it. And I didn’t really mind because it anchored the piece in the immediacy of the experience.

In a sense perhaps we can blame Tom Wolfe himself for all this first-person madness, and the other New Journalists, too, for legitimizing subjective reporting in which the writer him or herself occasionally makes an appearance. And yet, go back to the classic works by Wolfe, Mailer, Capote, Didion et al. and you’ll find the words I, me, and my rarely if ever appear—and when they do it’s in the service of propelling the narrative forward, not placing the narrator at the center of the scene.

Of the hundreds, maybe thousands of topics John McPhee has written about in his career I can honestly say I have zero interest in about ninety percent of them. Geology in rural Nebraska? The cross-country travels of a chemical tanker? Lacrosse? No thank you. But I read and enjoy everything McPhee publishes because his narratives are not about John McPhee, nor are they about geology, chemical tankers, or lacrosse—his features are about the process of discovery. The unobtrusive narrator invites the reader to be a participant in that process, not an observer of it.

It’s a neat trick. McPhee has mastered it; few of us ever will.

It seems a worthy exercise for writers of every genre to refrain from using the first person perspective in a piece or two, as a challenge if nothing else. Whether the quality of your writing improves or regresses is not the point. The exercise will force you to work a different part of your mind, and you may find the experience liberating.

Ross Coen is a historian who writes about the social, political, and environmental history of Alaska and the Arctic. He is the author of The Long View: Dispatches On Alaska History from Ester Republic Press and Breaking Ice for Arctic Oil: The Epic Voyage of the SS Manhattan through the Northwest Passage from University of Alaska Press. He lives in Fairbanks.

3 comments:

Deb Vanasse said...

Great post, Ross, with a nice distinction between participant and observer.

Eric said...

Tell it, Brother Coen! Although I found myself in the very strange position this semester of telling an MFA student that his essay might work better if he made it more about himself and his experience of the topic--yikes! Person matters, no doubt about it, and there's no substitute for working hard to find the right one.

Anonymous said...

This is a great point, I too get SO tired of magazine writing with a use of the "I" that's flippant, unconsidered, and banal. And, I love the reminder to challenge ourselves to push past our first default (for some, that might be 3rd person, not 1st.)

On the other hand, I don't first person itself is inherently arrogant or lazy (more likely just the culture that's using it!) So much depends on intent. A memoir with no first person would seem emotionally sterile. A witness to history story can feel more at stake if there's a sense of the human observer. I find first person most helpful when trying to humanize a story, locate myself in it for a reader--why did I care, and why might you? Relying on it at the expense of reportage or anecdote or scene or analysis is certainly lazy.

Good to have this conversation to kick around. It would be a bummer if all our NF writing started resembling social media updates...