“Go for the Eyes!”
Let’s face it, eyes cause nothing but trouble…Medusa, the Eye of Sauron, Polyphemus, The Three Stooges. Heck, if Indiana Jones hadn’t controlled his peepers when the ark was causing trouble, we would’ve never seen him and Sean Connery punch Nazis in the desert. But in the galaxy of prose, we have another issue, the dreaded “I.” It just sits there, resting against whatever punctuation may be next to it, or it just teeters, haplessly, supported by whatever words go near it. A light breeze can turn it into an underscore in an instant. It is elusive and boring and wholly dependent on the other twenty-five letters in the alphabet to make it remotely interesting.
As writers – specifically creative non-fiction writers – we have become too dependent on this vertical line to do a lot of work for us. As a non-fiction editor, a CNF reader for multiple lit mags, and a writer myself, nothing twists my stomach more than seeing an underdeveloped “I.” Writers use it as a way to give their story authority – I was there, therefore I am the authority, but who cares who you are? Unless of course, you used the “I” sparingly and instead focused on the conflict, tension, and details of your story. The “I” tends to stop everything demanding the reader focus on it, like a simile. But whereas similes create bridges for clarification and connection, the “I” can obfuscate and has the power to completely bring a great story to an unbearable halt.
I once had a professor who said, “The I is like a telephone pole: they’re useless close together and should be guiding the electricity of the piece.” Tent poles, harpoons, breadsticks, whatever; when they occur sparingly they are a delightful presence, but clustered together they just stick out and can even maim or blind, like the “I.” When I became aware of how often I use it, I couldn’t stop seeing it. I used “I” three times in that last sentence, but between each use as the narrative progressed, you learned a tad bit more about who the human being the “I” is supposed to represent. So, in closing, like any vice, use the “I” in moderation, enjoy the view and all the possibilities between its existence, and, eventually, you’ll begin to see your story grow.