why use the first person

I’m so flipped out excited about Zadie Smith that I’m sure I won’t do her justice. But this essay is indebted to her: on how powerful the first person is. I found her essay so rich that I want to come back to it again and again. But today, I want to share this piece:

It sounds very silly but through twenty years of (writing) I almost forgot what the first person was for….But the moment I started writing in the first person… I saw how this form uses something so fundamental, which we use every day talking to our children and partners and friends and enemies, in almost all our human interactions: the latent power of the anecdote, of testimony, of confession, of witness.

“Once upon a when? where? who?” (=the most basic set-up)

Compare that to: Something happened to me todayThe reality effect is so strong, immediate.

AND then she goes on to say, in her work, she uses the “I” just to capture the reader. She writes novels. The “I” doesn’t need to be true. But because that “I” is so strong, the reader believes in her:

You have the reader where you want them, in the palm of your hand, and the whole battle of fiction – to make them believe – feels more possible than ever.

So, I find this all so affirming. I find that really, on some level, my art (and I’m guessing everyone’s) is really autobiographical. It’s all about the “I”, even perhaps that “I” from childhood, or deep down. In Zadie Smith’s case, she said she wrote a whole book that led up to a fist fight between two teen-age girls and she realized that that fight had actually occurred in her own life and this whole piece of writing was to resolve that.

And me?

My “upset” came much earlier, based on my youngest three years when I couldn’t see well. As a result, there is this kind of overarching wonder about what it is to see clearly. I must have seen blurs for much of my first three years. And then – sudden clarity. So that moment keeps getting triggered: that – a circle can look like that? a circle in a circle – like that? A horse, like that?

Seeking. Seeking. Seeking.

Because I can’t recall the not-seeing part, but only the moment of suddenly being able to see clearly – there’s a bit of a mystery. Almost like I can be fine before seeing. Just touching the cloth. Just the touch.

So I start with luscious cloth. Touch it. Feel it.

And, eventually, after all the dyeing and art making, see it. That circle. Those circles. Those circles and horses.

That’s what happened to me – this many, many todays.