Because of that advice, in my rough drafts I’ve been looking for ways to remove references to myself, crossing out phrases or sentences the way I did in the first and second paragraphs above.
But did you notice? In the third paragraph, I used personal pronouns four times. Instead,
I could have made this revision
here’s a potential revision: “Writers can often remove references to
themselves without diminishing a sentence’s meaning and message.”
But don’t stop there! Because—
Phillip Lopate makes a strong case in favor of referring to ourselves: “Nothing is more common in a personal essay than the letter I. It is a perfectly good word, one no writer should be ashamed to use.…”
Lopate is a pro: an essayist, film critic, editor, and novelist (author of eight books). His advice comes from Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University (Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, editors).
Memoirists need to pay attention to such folks.
So which advice is correct? Should we minimize using “I” or, instead, take Lopate’s advice?
Both bits of advice can be appropriate.
Here’s how it works:
Lopate comes to the discussion from a different viewpoint than the group at the top of this post.
He writes: “The problem with I is not that it is in bad taste but that fledgling personal essayists and memoirists may think they have conveyed more than they actually have with that one syllable.”
Read that again.
He explains what he means: “In [the writers’] minds, that I swarms with a lush, sticky past and an almost fatal specificity, whereas the reader encountering it for the first time in a new piece of writing sees only a slender telephone pole standing in the sentence, trying to catch a few signals to send on.”
In other words, you, the writer, are a stranger to your readers, so let them get to know you. Introduce them to a well-developed individual rather than to a dull, distant, shadowy type. Lopate applauds writers “whose teeming inner lives readers come to know.”
Think back to your favorite books or stories. You probably felt you knew—felt a connection with—the main character, and that’s one reason you kept turning pages and didn’t want the story to end.
To let readers know and connect with you, Lopate says, “You must be able to pick yourself apart. The first step is to acquire some distance from yourself.… See yourself from the ceiling, know how you are coming across in social situations,… [know] when you charm and when you seem pushy, mousy, or ridiculous. You must begin to take inventory of yourself so that you can present that self to the reader as a specific, legible character.
“Start with your quirks,” he recommends, “the idiosyncrasies, stubborn tics, and antisocial mannerisms that set you apart from others. To establish credibility, resist coming across as absolutely average. Who wants to read about the regular Joe?”
Include details about yourself that pertain to, and advance, your story’s message; leave out irrelevant traits and quirks: If you are charming, pushy, mousy, or ridiculous but those details have no relevance to your vignette’s meaning, leave them out. (Save them. They might be just what you need for a different vignette.)
Bottom line: Avoid self-absorption and conceit, but also avoid being a stranger to your readers. Leave out unnecessary personal pronouns, but do let your readers get acquainted with you.
Readers want and need to know you in order to hear your message.