First person is a tricky thing sometimes. It makes the story more immediate and direct, more story-like. But, depending on the character, the reader may begin to see the narrator and the writer as the same creature. Confessional poetry lends itself to this blur. Sylvia Plath is the classic confessional writer. Her own experience, her own voice, herself as protagonist. But it’s really not that clear, is it? Or, at least, it’s not that clear indefinitely. But experimentation with this method is fascinating. How vulnerable is the I, of first person? How much harder to read an intimate revelation that is not hearsay, not distilled into the distance of she?
Or, for another vantage, what about Joan Didion: her essays, and her beautiful memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking.” She is the dispassionate, logical observer. The journalist of her own life. And what is most troubling about “The Year of Magical Thinking” is her acknowledgment of her own coldness, while she struggles with her personal, specific, crushing grief. The I as foil.
Consider Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Tim O’Brien is the name of the book’s protagonist, and the character shares some of the writer, Tim O’Brien’s experiences, but they are not interchangeable. The writer and the subject have a veil between them. The factual incidents, and the fictional incidents are not synonymous.
Some part of me is never the I, even as some part of me always is.
And this question of identity is bound with another question: how much of this story is true?
Well, how much do you believe? And, isn’t truth more than what happened? To represent the experience, we need the flexibility of first person—the evolving representation of storyteller. The mask of I.