Lifting the Lid: Me, Myself and I

I.

It’s the smallest word in the English language, yet it has the biggest implications. As writers we are concerned with the idea of self: what it means to be a human being, how people grow and develop, how we cope with problems and how we overcome adversity. Of all the viewpoints in which we can write, the first person is surely the most laden with possibilities for achieving this goal.

As a third person omniscient narrator we observe our characters with clinical detachment, noting their triumphs and failures and shaking our heads in the readers’ direction as if to say, “This is what we are. This is what we do. Do you see yourself in this?”

As a third person limited narrator we sit on a character’s shoulder, listening to his or her thoughts, privy to their thoughts and desires — and yet we are detached. We can only feel pity or love, sadness or satisfaction, as we might for a good friend or an acquaintance.

As a first person narrator we are the character. We feel what they feel. We see what they see. We think what they think. We feel their shame, their love, their fear, their happiness.

Each of these has their positive and negative aspects. Each one has their use. But for sheer immediacy of feeling nothing beats the first person.

I have recently succumbed to the first-person present-tense fad. And I like it. Yes, I’m putting up my hands and saying that I am an addict. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because it’s easier to write from this viewpoint. Maybe it’s easier to keep up the pace. Maybe it’s easier to get to know your characters.

I don’t know. In any case, I am in the process of converting Coals of Fire to present tense, a mixture of first- and third-person viewpoints. I took this decision because Jason, the protagonist, has a lot of emotional baggage to deal with. Reporting all of this was getting a little dry; in the first person it is more intimate, more confessional.

Here are a couple of before and after comparisons:

Before:

“Jason! Get your bag! It’s twelve to nine!”

Jason Oye fumbled with the straps on his bag, trying to clip it closed.

“Jason? Get down here right now!”

“Coming!” The box threatened to slip out, but he shoved it down with both hands and finally the clips slid home. “Coming, coming, coming!” He slung the bag over his shoulder and grabbed his tie as he barged out of the room and thundered downstairs.

Mum was waiting for him by the door. She had that look on her face, the one that said she ran out of patience five minutes ago. He brushed past her with his head down and didn’t look her in the eye. He knew what he’d see there.

In the car they didn’t talk. She went through a few amber-red lights, then pulled up at the school gates with a jerk.

“All right, then,” she said, patting him on the leg. She was still looking straight ahead, avoiding his gaze just as he was avoiding hers. “Don’t go getting into trouble today. Okay?”

Jason nodded. “Okay.” She didn’t ask what was in the bag, and he didn’t offer to tell her. That was how it was between them now.

They kissed, an awkward affair made clumsy by his adolescence, then he climbed out and shut the door with a thunk, and stood on the crowded pavement and watched her screech away into the traffic.

He sighed. That was life with mum. Ever since he had come back. Since the divorce. No. Not divorce. Separation. She was very firm on that point. They were separated. Though what difference it made he couldn’t see. It all came down to the same thing, didn’t it? Weekdays with mum and her job, weekends in the tiny flat with dad, full of the smell of old food and dirty laundry.

The bell was ringing: he was going to be late. But he didn’t hurry. He hadn’t hurried for anything for a long time.

And After:

“Jason! Get your bag! It’s twelve to nine!”

I fumble with the straps on his bag, trying to clip it closed.

“Jason? Get down here right now!”

“Coming!” The box threatens to slip out, but I shove it down with both hands and finally the clips slide home. “Coming, coming, coming!” I shout, then I sling the bag over my shoulder and grab my tie as I barge out of my room and down the stairs.

Mum’s waiting for me by the front door. She’s got the look on her face that says she ran out of patience five minutes ago. I brush past her with my head down. I don’t look her in the eye. I know what I’ll see there.

In the car we don’t talk. She goes through a few amber-red lights, then pulls up at the school gates with a jerk.

“All right, then,” she says, patting me on the leg. She’s still looking straight ahead, avoiding my gaze just as I’m avoiding hers. “Don’t go getting into trouble today. Okay?”

I nod. “Okay.” She doesn’t ask what’s in the bag, and I don’t tell her. That’s how it is between us now.

We kiss, but it’s awkward, and our cheeks bang together. I turn away in embarrassment, climb out and shut the door with a thunk, and stand on the crowded pavement and watch her screech away into the traffic.

That’s what life with mum is like now. Ever since I came back. Since the divorce. No. Not divorce. Separation. She’s very firm on that point. They’re separated. Though I don’t see what difference it makes. It all comes down to the same thing: weekdays with mum and her job, weekends in the tiny flat with dad, full of the smell of old food and dirty laundry.

The bell rings: I’m going to be late. But I don’t hurry. I haven’t hurried for anything for a long time.

Better? Worse? Or am I deluding myself?

[Edited to correct mistakes pointed out in the comments — thanks!]

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2 thoughts on “Lifting the Lid: Me, Myself and I

Add yours

  1. *whispers an aside* second and last sentences have hidden his and he’s in them. Other than that, I would say it’s less how the two comparisons read merely edited one into the other, and more how it feels during the actual writing, which one draws more inspiration from you into the words.

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