While presenting ‘Wanakufa’ at Pomona High School this week, the most interesting question I was asked was this: Why do I write my short stories in third person, when they are very obviously based on real-life experiences?
Why not just write essays or fictional memoir pieces in first person? Change a couple of names, maybe some of the smaller details, but make it even more obvious that the stories are less made-up than they seem? It would certainly lend credibility to the stories. No one would be able to say that I had pulled them out of thin air. Even without me coming in to present and explain the story, people would know that these things happened to me, specifically- Elizabeth Rose, and not anyone else.
Well, there are a couple of reasons for that. For one, I tend to be a ‘crisis of faith’ kind of writer. I’m not huge on writing stories about when I was on the top of my game. I write about when I was down on my luck, sick, confused, morally challenged, sad, or angry. The other characters in the story sometimes share in that negativity. Sometimes they are the cause of that negativity. These can be people that I met once and never saw again, people I hate, or people that I’ve come to love who were just having a bad day, or I didn’t know them well enough yet. When I write these kinds of encounters in first person, I feel an almost irrepressible urge to explain how I feel presently about those kinds of people. It’s difficult to write in an ‘I’ voice without including what ‘I’ have learned. Putting my own ‘self’ into a third person character helps me create that distance. It gives me the freedom to be able to write both myself as I was, and the other people as they were. Sure, I change their names and normally only the people being talked about have any idea that the story has to do with them in the first place. So they’re protected in that way. But to be honest about how I reacted to them then, I can’t allow the story to become saturated with who I am now.
Which is another reason why it’s important for me to write my memories in third person. It’s too easy, when in the first person, for me to write myself as a flawless character. I write myself as the perfect person I know myself to be (even though I’m not). When I create a third-person character who happens to have the same kind of experience that I’ve had, I allow myself to be much more honest about myself. I allow Julia to be horridly arrogant, materialistic, and slightly delusional. Martha is too doe-eyed, cautious and suspicious. Beck is cold, and nearly uncaring to a friend calling out for help. I was all of these things at one time, and in certain situations- in other situations and times I am less so, or more so. I am better able to analyze the memory that I’m trying to work through when I can allow the character to embody the way in which I responded to the situation that I was in- helps me become more harsh towards myself, and more willing to put forth all those little issues that made the situation possible. Creating a ‘me’ without the ‘I’ helps me battle my own ego.
I don’t write short stories just for other people. Novels, more so. But with short stories, like with poetry, I have something to work out. Old fears. Old trauma. Old questions. New questions brought up that make me think of old memories. Similar situations happening again and again in my life for no apparent reason. My short stories are written as a kind of map for myself- to attempt to see, objectively, where I’ve been and possible figure out where it is that I want to be going. I give them to you all in the hopes that maybe you too will be able to learn something from my own life.
Do I think I’ll never write a first person story? No. I’m sure there will come a time when it fits the story. But for the moment, I am not confident enough in my ability to instinctively separate my ego from my writing, and need a couple more years of practice with that. And I need a couple more months practice writing my own stories, from my own experience, before I can conjure up the audacity to make up such concise stories about non-existent people in the first place! So I hope you all will bear with me as I continue to learn, and continue to work things out. I’m grateful for the support.