Sunday, November 21, 2010

When first-person writing works well

At the PNA storytelling seminar last week, Marion Winik talked about personal essays and first-person writing; it's how she's built her career.

She's quite good at writing about events in her life. We hear someone like that and we come away tempted to do first-person writing. It's so alluring, and so different from what we usually do, and here's a nationally successful writer encouraging us to try, so we naturally start thinking about how we can do something like that.

I think it's a good idea to take that enthusiasm and keep it alive until the right story comes along. Most ideas won't qualify. Somewhere down the road, one will.

Here's an example of when it works.* I doubt anyone in our shop is going to go to Iraq and develop a relationship like this to write about, but this story, from Corinne Reilly in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot has what makes for a strong first-person story:

It's about something, as opposed to just relating some experiences. It tells a story -- it starts somewhere and goes somewhere and ends somewhere -- and (by design) it tells you there's more to come. It has a point of view, but it's never self-indulgent.

And for me, it had one of the best qualities of a well-written piece: I clicked on it just to see what it was about, not really intending to read the whole story, but it moved at such a good pace and was so seamlessly written that I read until the last sentence.

See what you think.

*Update: Broken link fixed. Thanks LeAnne.