8 Minute Read
You don’t have to use the first person in order to write about your own experiences. In fact, documenting your life in the second person, or the third person, can give you a sense of perspective not otherwise possible.
If ever you need some distance from events in your life, or if you just want to harness the effects that other points-of-view have to offer, try shifting the perspective at work in your writing.
Not only will cycling through perspectives give you another creative tool to work with, but it will also enable you to appreciate the role that point-of-view plays in telling a great story. Of all the life-writing techniques you could try, this one may well be the most liberating.
For this exercise, you’ll need:
A piece of paper
An eraser (yes, an eraser! Or an above average tolerance for words scratched out in pencil)
Some vague recollection of how your day went
Someone nearby who you can share your writing with
You may be wondering: Why on Earth would I use a pencil for this exercise? I have my laptop/phone/tablet/magic air-writing VR helmet-type-thingy right here in my super handy backpack.
It’s true: any one of those devices would probably work, but for now, humour me, and just start with a pencil. It’ll all make sense soon enough.
Here’s what I’m asking you to do: I want you to start by writing down something that happened today. Use the first person when recounting these events. For example:
I ran after the bus, but I missed it, so I decided to grab some breakfast. When I went to pay, I realized that I had forgotten my bank card, probably because I hadn’t planned on buying anything, so there I was, breakfast sandwich in hand, impatient barista before me, and neither one of us entirely sure what to do.
And then just keeping going from there.
If you’re anything like me, your days are full of minor mishaps and miscalculations, so it shouldn’t take long for you to stumble onto a dilemma you can work with. Just spend five minutes writing down what you remember. And bonus marks, too, if you include anything that’s particularly embarrassing. Those always make for good details.
Now that you have some words on the page, I’d like you to find someone nearby you can read them to. I like to do this activity on the first night of a creative writing workshop, entirely so that people have a chance to get to know each other, so go ahead and introduce yourself and share what you managed to get down on the page.
Switching From I to You
Hopefully, you enjoyed chatting with your classmate and now officially know at least one person in your class. What I’d like you to do now is to go back and replace all the I’s and switch them to you’s. In other words, we’re going to switch over to the second person to see if the writing feels different.
Certainly, switching your pronouns is easy enough to do if you’re working on a computer, but I still prefer a pencil for this activity.
Warning: Brief Rant on Computers and Writing Utensils Ahead
The tricky thing about using computers for first drafts is that these gadgets do two things to you: 1) they too easily erase proof of your labour and 2) they present words, sentences, and paragraphs in a manner that too closely resembles a final published project.
You could argue that the first of these concerns is unavoidable, as early drafts eventually all fall from sight, but I insist that the second is a real problem for new writers. Seeing your stories or poems or plays on a screen, or even printing out on a page, can fool you into thinking they’re almost ready for public presentation. Just look how tidy is, after all. We’ve got margins and everything!
Here’s the thing: unless you’re planning to go the self-publishing route, formatting your project is someone else’s job. Your goal is to write something that’s worth editing, typesetting, printing, binding, marketing, and, of course, reading. The first step towards doing so is to accept that your first drafts are just that: drafts. Hopefully promising, but nothing more. And one of the ways you can help yourself in this process is to get away from the screen for a spell and to put that fancy pen your Aunt Belinda gave you to good work.
Or, better yet: use a pencil. When you screw up, or want to change something, go ahead and make a mess on the page. It will remind you where you are in the process, and it’ll give you the freedom to change your mind as you go.
What’s more, at the end of the day, you’ll have proof of the effort that you put in, which is important, because even if you didn’t manage to get anywhere with a project you’re working on, you’ll still know that you tried.
Back to the Exercise
You should now have a brief account of something that happened to you, only now, the I’s are crossed out, and the you’s have been inserted.
Find a new partner, and then read your writing out loud. Once you’ve both had the chance to do so, ask yourselves if the writing felt different, and then discuss why you think that was (or wasn’t) the case.
The Third Person
The last thing we’re going to do (and you may have guessed where this is going) is to switch over to the third person. Go ahead and cross out all the you’s and replace them with whatever third-person pronoun you use. Then find a new partner and read your work out loud. Once you’ve both had the chance to do so, talk about the effect that the third person has on the writing.
One Last Thing
If you’re looking for a compelling example of using the third person to write autobiographically, hop on to iTunes and do a search for Michael Crummey’s Hard Light – 32 Little Stories. This exceptional audio book begins with a track entitled “Rust,” which Crummey reads himself. My sense is that this passage serves as a prologue of sorts to the collection as a whole. I’m almost certain that Crummey’s mining some autobiographical detail from his past, but he writes about it in the third person. I just love the effect that it has on the narrative.
While the third-person can have a distancing effect, for some reason, as a reader, I actually feel closer to Crummey’s scene. It’s as though the storyteller has created a space for us by stepping back and letting us through.
If the passage had been written in the first person, I’m not sure that I would have felt as comfortable entering that space. It would have felt like I was inhabiting someone’s memory as they were remembering it, which can be a meaningful experience, of course, but in this instance, I have to think that Crummey’s instincts were spot on.
In any case, be sure to check it out. It’ll be the best two dollars you spent this week.
Hopefully, you now have a sense of what different perspectives have to offer your writing. Each has its own particular effect, and which you choose will ultimately depend on the project at hand.
What matters most here is that you don’t automatically assume that fiction must be written in the third person, or that you can only write about your own life in the first person. Give yourself permission to experiment and to see what happens. It may be just the thing you need to bring new writing to life.