One of the first questions the writer of non-fiction needs to decide is how present he or she wants to be within the piece. Is the story better told from the first person point of view, with the author as an active participant? Or would an arm's length, third person approach, be more effective? Each have merit, and there are wonderful examples of both. John McPhee usually writes in the third person. For example, in The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed (all 192 pages of it), he used the word “I” twice. Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, wrote entirely in the first person. Both are classics, both successful, both very different. This is one of the beauties of literary non-fiction.
So which to choose? The answer is partly a function of what kind of story you want to write. Your childhood may be better told in the first person, but if you are writing about the families suffering from water contamination in heavily fracked lands, for example, it may be more effective to place yourself - as a writer - at a distance from the issue.
It might also, though, come down to personal preference. How do you like to write? What do you like to read? Personally, I am not so interested in third person journalistic pieces. Perhaps it’s narcissistic but I like to be in the story, and if I’m not in it, I want to have an opinion about it, and I want to be able to express that opinion clearly. I like to reflect on the things I write about. I try to roll them around in my mouth, taste them, chew them a little, smell them, touch them, and sense their texture. I like to speculate as to their larger meaning. And I like to express those thoughts on the page. If I could not do this, I would not bother to write.
Philip Lopate put it well: “I am more interested in the display of consciousness on the page. The reason I read non-fiction is to follow an interesting mind…I’m arguing more for reflective non-fiction where thinking and the play of consciousness is the main actor.” Me too. I want to read writers who lay it out there, who expose themselves and their thoughts and I want to write this way too.
To be able to write nonfiction with the skills of a storyteller is a rare gift and I enjoy reading such work. I wish I could write that way; it’s an art. But I don’t want to immerse myself in the organ transplant industry, or in the history of astronauts, or the business of fracking, just to tell a story. Such topics are fascinating, for sure, but I am more interested in the things that are going on right here, right now, in the small but interesting sphere of the world that I find myself in. And I want to make sense of those things. If I can find a way to make them interesting to others, well, that would be just fine.
The writer Jennifer Bowen Hicks sums it up for me: “When a writer voices the agitations of her will through words, I feel my own blood moving inside my veins, transfused and transformed by the essay’s greatest potential gift: full access to another human’s thinking, feeling, core—that place where our truest feelings and agitations live. In writing, is there any other point?”
Kevin Brolley is a first year MFA student. This is not his first career. The others worked out pretty well, mostly, but the jury is still out on this one. His long-term ambition is to become the most caffeinated man in America.