First Person Memoirs For People Who Don't Exist

I write first person memoirs for people who don’t exist. I just thought this to myself and it sounded cool and authoritative (in the author sense of the word). It may be accurate, since they’re as bewildered and mistaken about their pasts, and of themselves, as I am. And with that in mind, I don’t have to ponder my own problems; I can sort the issues of other people…who don’t exist. I’m tempted to think of it as a pathetic exercise, though it explains, in part, my difficulty with the third person voice. 

There, I sound too authoritative (in the classical sense) and my habit is to over write—that is, to overcompensate for the third person’s inherent distance from the subject. Funny since depression makes me feel distant and neutral—or not so funny, since writing affords me the time and space to elude reality, a daily and dissociative experience.  It makes sense that my strength as a writer, for now, lies underneath the skins of other people…who don’t exist…because that’s where I’d rather be—in the shoes and life of another, any other, besides myself. 

Most of the stories I’ve read of late were written in the first person. Individuals smarter—or perhaps more committed to the topic—than me have, perhaps, wondered about the proliferation of “I” in fiction. I tend to believe that it’s a form of warding off nonfiction’s recent surge in popularity and so-called “relevance.” If readers are so hungry for personal essays and memoirs, then fiction’s response—or mimicry, I suppose—is the first person. 

Who knows? I’m looking to justify my usage of the form, to explain in a roundabout way my difficulties with third person, which is more about aesthetic than execution. Indeed, I can write a third person story—I’ve written many—but my ear, so to speak, prefers the sound of first person. It forces me to find the character’s voice, its nuance and pitch and vocabulary, which develops an economy for the story to which I must adhere. It calls for discipline, a sensibility I lack when in third person. I take it as license to act like a wild man with the prose, lobbing tedious descriptions and dense swathes of narrative as if they were blunt objects or blades; I can only imagine what the poor reader, unsuspecting and innocent, feels at the other end of these weapons.

I could take the position that the first person is my schtick, except that I want to be well-rounded. My style, whatever that is, might be better served through the first person, but that’s a far-off determination after years of trial and error, experimentation and failure and success. I’m keenly aware of the deficiency; no matter the number of publications I rack up in the future (God willing), I’m more concerned with becoming a student of all forms. Hell, I wrote a story in second voice—my own and only thus far—just to see how it worked, to feel how the story funneled itself through what some might call a gimmicky narrative element. Long story short, I’m trying to push myself out of my comfort zone. I think I love writing first person memoirs for people who don’t exist; I just don’t want it to be the only thing I can do. Sooner or later, readers will get wise—then bored.

Questionnaire time! Do you have a voice of preference within your own work? Are you strong in one perspective, but perhaps in need of practice with others? Got any tips for a lost soul like me?

@thomasdemary. @Thomas DeMary.

  • I very often use first person. I think I do more interesting things with first. I’ve struggled with it for a few years because everyone and their writing teacher told me that it was not to be done ever and I’d never ever get a first person story published. Apparently they were wrong.

    On the other hand I do enjoy using a limited third person sometimes as well. I suppose it really depends on the story and what the story calls for.

    I’ve used second person rarely. I really enjoy it for shorter length things. I like to play with it for my own amusement.

    After all this yammering I have no advice except do it if it makes you feel fancy.

  • thomas demary

    Thanks Shannon for the yammering lol. If I were to liken voices to basketball, I have a pretty good jump shot (first person) while I need more work on the free throws (third person). Like you, I enjoy writing in first person; switching away from third person saved many of my stories. And like I said, third person might not be my “thing,” but at this point, it’s a matter of comfort versus preference.

    I had a lot of fun writing in second voice; I never really thought about it as an option until I read Junot Diaz—before him, I can’t remember another author appearing comfortable and confident while deploying the voice.

    Thumbs up to your advice…first person makes me feel quite fancy lol

  • I love that term, “first person memoirs for people who don’t exist.” I vacillate between first person memoirs for people who don’t exist and various limited third person POVs. Interesting post, Thomas.

  • thomas demary

    Thanks for the response, Dawn. “First person memoirs for people who don’t exist” sounded great to my ear as soon as i thought of it. I might explore the idea a little more in the future, but it does explain, to some degree, what I try to do when writing in first person…it kinda put my mind in the proper perspective, so to speak.