My teachers told me to be careful with the first person. They spoke of it like an addiction that, once begun, is difficult to control. Once a character begins observing the world directly, where is the filter? What’s to stop every inane thought from creeping in? And beyond that, the first person is a selfish point of view. It is only good for the confession booth.
My teachers told me to be careful with the first person. Personal tragedy is a luxury. The depth of one’s tragedy is proportionate to one’s prosperity. Those who truly suffer do not have the time or volition to frame their narrative as tragic, comic or anything else. They do not have the energy to carry their story up a hill and plant it in the ground. Beware the memoir and other first person accounts of tragedy—in those accounts, be always on the lookout for concealed wealth and privilege.
My teachers told me to be careful with the first person. No one wants to hear your complaints, they told me after reading one of my more raunchy tell-alls. No one cares about your life. Just tell us a story. Use the third person. It’s a much more robust point of view. The third person is the eye of the gods. It was good enough for Dickens. Even Jesus Christ tried to avoid the first person; that’s why people liked him so much.
My teachers told me to be careful with the first person. Look at Augustine, look at Apuleius, look at Lucian, look at Whitman—all rich misfits, all pathetic, all the butt of someone else’s joke. To write in the first person is to be the set up for someone else’s punch line. You’re Rocky, my teacher said after reading one of my stories, you just keep getting hit. See what happens, she warned me. Just keep writing about your wife—see where that gets you.
My teachers told me to be careful with the first person. You are a writer, they told me; your life will never be as interesting as you want it to be. Just die in a memorable way. It’ll be the best thing for all of us. You’ll get your story, only it’ll be someone else writing it, and that way it will be in the third person, the way it always should have been. And anyway, death is a great adventure. Don't be frightened. Death is no tragedy. It isn't personal.
Kaj Tanaka’s writing has appeared in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Volume 1 Brooklyn, PANK and Joyland, and he has been featured on Wigleaf's (very) short fictions list. Kaj is the nonfiction editor at BULL. He tweets @othrrealppl.