Few narrative devices are as contentious in journalism as the first-person point of view. First-time storytellers in particular pine to use it, only to be told off by editors who hit delete whenever they encounter the word “I” outside of a quote. How valid is this doctrine of detachment in an era of the personal journalistic brand?
Montana Journalism Review invited two nationally renowned writers to debate the issue. Laura Munson, a bestselling author and writing coach who lives in Whitefish, wrote one of the most popular columns in the New York Times’ Modern Love series, “Those aren’t fighting words, dear.” Hamilton Nolan, a senior editor at Gawker, is revered as the blog’s (and maybe even New York City’s) chief bullshit detector. Boxing and media criticism are his primary beats.
Both Munson and Nolan have thought long and hard about narrative point of view.
Munson: I’m rarely asked to write hard news or features, so my work finds its way into print as personal essays starring me and my life, and have been published in glossy magazines and newspapers where personal essay is appropriate. Lately, a lot of my stuff is about sending a kid off to college, reinvention, creating sanctuary for writers at my Haven Retreats, and using writing as a therapeutic tool that I believe should be up there with diet and exercise in the way of preventative wellness.
I’m a sucker for a personal story, so I’d rather read a piece with a human in it holding their heart in their hand than straight news. But if that’s all we had, we’d be in trouble!
Nolan: In many ways the first-person viewpoint is the most honest way to write journalism, because it gets rid of the fiction that the writer is not actually present in and somehow affecting the scene he’s writing about.
That said; it takes a very skilled touch to use first-person writing well. It is incredibly easy for first-person journalism to become infected by first-person fascination. It is incredibly easy for the writer to lose sight of the ostensible topic of the story and slip into the habit of making the story about himself.
Munson: I think that the first person must be hard-won. Especially when we’re young and hot on the heels of the natural and necessary developmental stage of teendom—when it’s “all about me.” When we’re that age, we lack empathy, and writers have to be empathetic, almost to a fault, in order to write truly, no matter the genre or voice.
When I sit down to write, I imagine this portal inside me– an opening to the human experience. Sometimes that calls for personal stories, which help people to know that we are all in this together. Sometimes, that calls for more distance. But always, in effective writing, empathy is the force driving the piece.
Nolan: If I’m writing something in which I’m placing the highest value on objectivity, I would not write in the first person. There’s a reason why newspaper journalism isn’t written in first person. Whether or not true objectivity exists is its own (old) debate, but it’s common sense that if simply conveying objective facts is your main purpose, there’s no need for the first person to creep into your writing.
Objectivity is not the aim of first-person writing. Honesty is. First-person writing can be both completely subjective and completely honest. For me, honesty means saying what I actually believe rather than what I think the audience will want to hear or what will be most popular. It also means doing my best to reckon with my own flaws, biases, preferences, tastes, and various areas of ignorance. It means being up front about why I think what I think, and not pretending to be the voice of God. This, I think, is why first-person writing, while lacking in objectivity, is ultimately more honest than other styles. It allows you to reveal very plainly that you’re just another jerk. Just like your reader!
Munson: I agree with Hamilton. The first-person really doesn’t have any place in straight up journalism. In short form writing, it belongs in personal essay and op-ed. Blogs. In a socially networked berserk world, there is too much “I”, in my opinion.
I spoke on a panel this week at a high school career day and was asked by the students in each session how to essentially find the “I” in their work, especially when they didn’t care about the subject. Really, they were asking me how to care about their writing. My answer was simple. CARE about what you write.
Figure out how to care. And like Hamilton said, you might look like a jerk. Oh well. Expose yourself, whether it’s overt or the undercurrent that drives the piece. Be vulnerable. Be inconvenient. Embarrass your mother. But behind it all, know why you write in the first place. The rest of it will follow.
Nolan: I read a pretty broad cross-section of “the media” each day, and I think that for years now, there’s been a pretty heavy overload of personal essays. They do well online, they get a lot of clicks, and more traditional mainstream news outlets have rushed in in the footsteps of online sites to replicate that popularity.
Personal essays are fine. But the beauty of journalism is telling stories about the world–stories outside of yourself. The world is full of billions of interesting people and they all have their own stories, and as journalists, we’re lucky enough to be able to mine those stories for our own work. We should take advantage of that.
Journalism is far, far more interesting than ourselves. Focusing too much on ourselves is a rip-off for us, for all the people whose stories are not getting told, and for the readers who deserve something more interesting than my own navel-gazing. At least sometimes.
Debate orchestrated by Ryan Mintz