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Narrative Digest, a site run by Harvard's Neiman Foundation for Narrative Journalism, offers a peek into Michael Pollan's creative process with an essay on nature writing adapted from a speech he gave at last year's Nieman conference. Here's a taste of what he has to say about writing in the ever-tricky first person (Warning: may only be fascinating to writers and the otherwise poorly socialized):
"The first person is often badly used, especially in newspaper journalism. I tend to rely on it heavily, but if you look at my work you'll find that, even when it's there, you learn very little about me. I use it not in confession but as a narrative device.
The key is to realize that once you've made the decision that you're writing a first-person piece, you're not done. There's a second decision: Which first person? You have many identities when you're writing. For example, I could approach a piece as a gardener. Or as a Jew. Or a son. Or father. As someone who lives in Berkeley, Calif. As any number of identities. When you're writing in first person, you're not using your whole identity. You're choosing what is useful to your story.
With "Power Steer," I wrote as a carnivore. This was an important choice. Because if I'd written about the meat industry as a vegetarian, nobody would have read what I wrote. I needed to start where my reader was. And odds were that my New-York-Times reader was a carnivore. It's also much more interesting to find out what happens to a carnivore after he's gone into the heart of darkness of the modern American meat industry than what happens to a vegetarian. Because you know exactly what would happen to a vegetarian: He'd say, "See, I told you so." That's not very interesting.
So choose your first person deliberately. Too many newspaper first persons -- and a lot of magazine first persons too -- are written in the voice of the neutral feature-writer. They're the voice of the Journalist. That is the least interesting first person you have. Nobody cares about journalists. They're not normal people. So choose a first person that draws on a more normal side of your personality. And think about which one will help you tell the story. You'll see that in very subtle ways it will shape your point of view and your tone and unlock interesting things."