AWP 2014: Truth & First Person Journalism

March 10, 2014 § 5 Comments

1901147_10152629853947656_1697701726_nGuest blogger Samantha Claire Updegrave responds to the AWP Seattle panel, “First Person Journalism: Tips for Telling the Truth”:

I’m in an end-of-AWP-day-one cranky stupor when journalist, author, and magazine editor Autumn Stephens’ humor lifts me up. I shift my sore hips back into the chain-locked chair, lean forward, and soak up her soft-spoken words. 

“Americans tell 1.6 lies a day,” she tells us, citing a 2010 study. She leans into the microphone and tosses out a few examples.

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

We have an open marriage.

There are weapons of mass destruction.”

I’m pretty honest, but it makes me think. I tell that first lie to my four-year-old who demands the book Santa’s Toy Shop at bedtime at least four times a week. He says he’s going to be extra good this year so that Santa will stop at his house with a model train and tunnel. It’s only March, and if he wants to self-govern based on that, fine with me. In early adulthood I once fell for something along the lines of the second. Big mistake. And the third, we’re still feeling the reverberations of that lie the world over.

Stephens throws out a different example, one from her early magazine days. She was asked to write about interior design, which she knew nothing about, and took a personal approach, letting the story speak through her experience as a novice. She began with something along the lines of, “As I walked through the gates I was transported to the South Seas….” Her editor returned the piece with the “I’s” crossed out and replaced by, “a visitor.” It reminded her of something her mother had told her years before. “She said I could expect a monthly visitor.” When she saw the changes in the article, she had the same thought as after her mother’s warning. “What visitor?”

Old-time journalist will tell you that they learned to never use the vertical pronoun, that slender sneaky little “I.” But these days, when it’s not strict reportage, there’s a more nuanced view of the “I.”

Using the first person, coming out and saying who we are, is one way we can infuse our non-fiction writing with integrity. There’s no need for the visitor artifice. First person is a gateway into a story because it invites the reader in, illuminates the universal through our experiences. It’s not for every piece, but let’s look at those beginning lies as a case study.

If I were writing about how family beliefs get passed down, I could start with the Santa experiences with my son. I could ask my Jewish friends from childhood, whom I later learned helped their parents carry their presents from the basement closet to their tree, why they never told me the truth. Maybe I’d find a bigger story about belief and belonging.

If I wanted to explore the virtue of faithfulness, I could enter the story through my experience of what was supposed to be a one-night stand in my early 20’s with a man who claimed his marriage had ended. He lied, then his wife left and he became my problem. This approach could let readers look at their feelings without making them directly confront their own transgressions, whether real or fantasy.

If I wanted to write about how the things got worse for girls in Afghanistan with the US military presence, I wouldn’t need to be in it. But, if I was writing about the recall of inactive troops, I’d share my story of the letter I received on September 21, 2011 notifying me that my permanent separation from the US Air Force, which was slated for December 5th, was on hold, indefinitely.

It boils down to trusting our intuition with our writing, to asking if our experiences or interactions with the subject matter lead us to the truth, a “go big” where our presence brings the reader in and illuminates the story, world, or some aspect of our shared humanity.

Stephens asserts that whatever we write, with the exception of our grocery list, that we should, “Write with integrity, and for God’s sake don’t be boring.”

Samantha Claire Updegrave writes creative non-fiction, micro-essays, and poetry. Her work has appeared most recently in Literary Mama, Bacopa Literary Review, and hipMama. She is an MFA candidate at The Northwest Institute of Literary Arts and an assistant non-fiction editor at Soundings Review. By day she is an urban planner, and lives in Seattle, Washington, with her partner, young son, and two feuding cats.

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