Holy First Person Singular, Batman!

Call me a spiritually obsessed literary geek, but the little spiritual wisdom I can claim I’ve gleaned from grammar. For example, take the memoirist’s point of view, first person singular. This is the “I” voice, the one every journal-keeper cherishes, as in “I do love grammar!” After memoirists’ initial honeymoon with the first person singular, during which the “I” is a magnificent, unfolding mystery, they go through a predictable period of discomfort. Alice McDermott described it this way: “The sight of too many first-person pronouns dribbling down the page tends to affect my reading mind in much the same way as too many ice cubes dropped down my back affect my spine.” “I” seems self-referential, self-obsessed. Innumerable memoirists try to eliminate the word “I” from there stories for fear of calling attention to themselves.

This discomfort isn’t limited to writers. Anyone who values (or has been taught to value) humility knows it. Women are the worst (or best?) offenders. We don’t like taking up space. Minnesotans, strongly influenced by Scandinavian cultures, are also notorious for self-deprecation. Self-assertion is suspect. You’d think egotism was a crime—or, more likely, a sin. Perhaps Christian roots are to blame, because Christianity’s strong (and worthy) moral teachings about caring for others and long (but terribly misunderstood) spiritual tradition of surrendering the will both lead us to treat the self with suspicion.

Here’s where grammar comes to the rescue. In the sentence, “I love grammar,” “I” is the subject, “love” is the verb, and “grammar” is the object. When writers choose “I” as their subject, they are creating a two-dimensional character to be the actor in their story. The “I” is a lens; it’s a uniquely curved piece of glass through which the author (and, later, the reader) looks at the world. In this sentence, the object of this lens’s attention is “grammar.” A reader looks lovingly through the I toward grammar.

In other words, a well-written first-person sentence, as with a well-written memoir, isn’t about the “I” at all. The “I” is simply a lens on life. Any attempt to erase the “I” is misguided, false humility. It’s an ego attached to not being egotistical. Henry David Thoreau knew this when he wrote Walden: “In most books the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking.”

Thoreau’s acceptance of the “I” is representative of the new sense of self committed memoirists must embrace: The “I” is inescapable; it’s enough; it’s what we have to work with. Surprisingly, this consenting to the I’s unique graces and limitations frees us. Our willingness to look through that lens with love is, I believe, what the Christian mystics mean by surrender. Lest you think I’m off my rocker, today’s reflections are inspired by Jacob Boehme, German mystic and author of The Way to Christ: “You eagerly wish to completely break the ‘I’ and it wishes to become for you a completely divine ground.” The way is through the “I” and beyond!     –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


Thanks to everyone who came out to celebrate the launch of Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice.  If you’d like a copy, it’s available through inSpirit Books until March, when it will be more widely available.

One last spiritual memoir class this season!  Look for a new line-up of second Friday drop-in sessions come January.  December 8, 1:30-3:30 p.m.:  The World Boiled Down to a Drop, Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions at Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.



2 thoughts on “Holy First Person Singular, Batman!”

  1. What a lovely piece! And helpful to me because I’m working on a memoir in which I refer to the younger versions of myself in my old journals as “she.” Today’s “I” gazing at “her” with love and compassion is just the way I need to be thinking of this project. Thanks!

    1. Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew

      Wonderful. Your post makes me think about Scott Russell Sanders’ comment, “Don’t condescend to your younger self. Your feelings back then have authority. Condescension to your younger self is bogus. Whatever you were as a child you had a full heart.” Love and compassion are the ticket!

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