Monday, July 13, 2009

First person: yea or nay?

I first came across Wright Thompson in the 2005 edition of the Best American Sports Writing series. Thompson is a wildly talented writer, one whom I’ve admired since reading that story about Jack Trice, the first black football player at Iowa State.

Thompson, who went from the Kansas City Star to as a senior writer, sparked a conversation on about his recent story on Steve McNair. He wrote it using first person, and was criticized for not writing about Steve McNair, but rather writing about Wright Thompson.

There are some journalists – probably most – who feel it is a cardinal sin to write a feature in first person. They will go so far as to say it should NEVER happen. WE are not part of the story.

Honestly, I’m torn on the subject. I once used first person in a feature. It was about skydiving with Casey Deegan, an adult with Down syndrome. I tried a narrative technique that used my experience has a first-time skydiver interspersed with sections about Casey and his extraordinary life.

To this day I’m not sure that was the right approach. Maybe the story would have been better served if I pulled myself out and instead wrote a sidebar documenting my experience. But I wanted to challenge myself and felt this would be a good time to experiment with first person.

My ego probably came out somewhere in that thought process. Who wouldn’t want to read about my first skydiving experience? I’m sure that could have clouded my reasoning to some extent.

I still don’t understand why some writers are so opposed to first person, though. I can see disagreeing with its use and never wanting to try it yourself. But many vehemently oppose it. That’s the attitude I don’t understand.

I skimmed the comments left after Thompson’s McNair story—hey, there were almost 400. Did you think I’d really read them all? Most of the “conversation” was whether or not McNair deserved to die because he committed adultery.

I had no interest in that line of “debate,” an all-too-common occurrence on the wonderful interweb tubes. Instead I was looking to see if anybody criticized Thompson for inserting himself into the story.

A couple who were critical of him, but for other reasons. I saw many more who wrote about how much the story touched them. That obviously isn’t enough evidence to make an informed decision. But it did get me thinking.

Maybe journalists are too hard on each other. Maybe readers don’t give a rip about the use of first person. Or second. Or third. Maybe they don’t even care about sentence fragments. All that matters is if the story is written well enough, if it can stir something inside the reader. And sometimes that can happen with a first-person story.

Admittedly, there is a narcissistic bent to first-person writing. I just read a blog entry that went into that. Some writers are incapable of taking themselves out of stories. Without their own experiences to include they would have nothing to write about.

If nothing else, Thompson’s story doesn’t fall into that category. Neither does my story about Casey. I did a ton of reporting and spent many hours with him and his family. I did the legwork that others will sometimes neglect and then cover up by using first person.

I’d like to hear your thoughts. I have many friends who are – or were – journalists, but I’m hoping to hear from just regular readers, too.

Is first person OK in a newspaper outside a column or the editorial page? Is first person more acceptable in magazines or on the Web? Did Wright Thompson needlessly insert himself into the McNair story? Do readers care adamantly one way or the other?


  1. Hey, Paul. Nice blog post. I'm a fan of first person in journalism. I got the bug thanks to "new journalist" authors like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. I suppose the sports equivalent is George Plimpton's "Paper Lion." I imagined creatively chronicling exploits in which I was an active participant, and sparingly using implied first person by my detailed accounts that only someone who was there would be able to relate. But I found that not many opportunities really lent themselves to that sort of writing. I think your Casey story was a good instance, though, of good use of first person. Cheers, Ted.

  2. Thanks, Ted. You bring up a good point about the opportunities being few. The biggest mistake writers can make is forcing it.

  3. Hey Paul, Once I started writing criticism, I found it's impossible to leave myself out of it. What is criticism? It's me telling you what I think of something, right? How can I do that without putting myself in the story?
    What I find even odder than journalists being so opposed to the first person is READERS being so opposed to it. All this talk of arrogance. It's weird. Writers doing what they do well is not arrogance. Your blog, for instance, is in the first person, and that certainly isn't arrogant.
    I read authors like David Sedaris, Carrie Fisher and Augusten Burroughs, who overtly or covertly, are telling their own stories. I love to read them because they are fantastic, entertaining authors. It helps that they have interesting lives, and are very good at storytelling. Hell, I even love to read Roger Ebert, who is notorious for putting himself in movie reviews, because he's a good writer.
    On the other hand, when someone is bad at it - Richard Roeper is a great example - there is an embarrassing "look at me," flop-sweat quality to it. You can feel the person trying too hard.
    So it depends on the writer, and as always, no one is required to read anything. But saying it should not exist - well, I would appreciate it if no one would take my David Sedaris away from me, please.
    As for your own example, I can see, honestly, as an editor, how I would have questioned it. Having such a great subject, I probably would have asked "is this the right story for that?" But, I know you, Paul. You are a thoughtful guy. And you would have given me the same thoughtful answer you gave yourself when you decided to do it. As long as you had a reason to do it, it's OK.

  4. I probably should have discussed it more with the editors. Casey on his own is a remarkable story. I hope that still came through by the way the story was constructed. The first-person parts were seperated from Casey's story by breaker heads. Casey was in my sections, but I wasn't in his. So if people really hate first person, they could have completely skipped the parts about me and just read Casey's story.