Monday, May 24, 2010

A Bystander In My Own Life

"I think....I feel....I believe..."

He'd pause between each phrase, drawing it out as if trying to teach a child to speak. I could feel the anger rising in me when he'd interrupt me mid sentence, coaching me on how to own what I was saying. The instant I started any sentence with they, you, whoever, that person over there he'd interrupt me again. He didn't want me speaking for him or anyone else. Had he been the counselor it wouldn't have been so bad but we were both clients in a government run treatment centre. His interruptions would remind me again that I couldn't speak for anyone except myself.It was pretty hard on my ego to shrink my sentences down to I statements. I would have told him to go fuck himself except I'd already heard his story and his journey of learning how to use "I" statements for himself had a way of invoking stunned speechlessness on the part of those listening. He was a gentle, humble man without a hint of malicousness in his coaching. He wanted me to own my life.

If you'd read through the past 15 years of my journals you'd notice pages and pages of writing without the word "I" anywhere. You might even wonder if I was observing someone else instead of recording my own life. The first time this struck me as not quite right I felt unnerved, like a crack had started in my armour without permission. Eventually I realized that writing in the third person was a way of distancing myself from my heart. I'd catch myself writing sentences something like this
"One really needs to think about what they want out of life from time to time."
No way was I going to write
"I really need to think about what I want out of life."
I did it in letters to friends, too. One day a friend commented that I wrote as if I was putting on a persona. Persona? I had to look that word up before I could even consider that she may be right:
"per·sona (pər sō′nə)

noun pl. personae -·nae (-nē), personas -·nas

1.the characters of a drama, novel, etc.
2.Psychol. the outer personality or facade presented to others by an individual" (emphasis mine)
It was uncomfortable when I realized that even in my journals and letters, never mind my day to day speech, I was distancing myself from my very life. After a few weeks of my new friend reminding me to use a pronoun I started to use the word "I" more than "you" or "they".

Scared the shit out of me to do so.
Freed me, too.
From being a victim.

Since then, whenever I catch myself writing or speaking in third person a little warning bell rings in my head. That warning asks me to double check to see if I am trying to be a bystander in my own life instead of a participant. Sometimes it is still hard to face the fear in owning my life. It takes all the power out of pointing fingers and blaming others for my reality.

All this to say that my writing instructor suggested to me today to rewrite my novel in first person instead of keeping the reader at a distance by writing in the safety of a third person point of view. When I read his note I said to myself, "Oh, shit. Here we go again." because that very thought had crossed my mind a few weeks ago, too but I'd dismissed it as too much work (all 50K words considered) and besides, I have no idea what's going to come out of my character's mouth if I give her that kind of leeway.

I wrote him back and told him that I was scared to get inside my character's head but if he really thought it would make the story better then I would rewrite the whole thing. I wrote that my head said no way but my heart said yep, you're right.

Something tells me that the character in my book wants to be more than a bystander in her own life, too.


Jess Mistress of Mischief said...

What an awesome experience shared!

Anonymous said...

Good things to think about today. I hope it stops snowing...right now! Birdies chirping while it snows. Now that's faith!

Kathy M. said...

I love this post on so many levels. Thank you for sharing.

Robin said...

A bystander in her own life. Sometimes I'd give anything for that to be true. Other times I realize I AM giving everything for that NOT to be true.

Andrew said...

A treatment centre I was a resident in taught us to use the first person in sharing. It made perfect sense to me and I see the value in this.

Daisy said...

I think it's great that the instructor is causing a little dis-comfort, for lack of better words. Unfortunately, that seems to we when we learn the most....when I learn the most. :)


Enchanted Oak said...

As you say, speaking in the first person, making "I" and "me" statements, is scary and empowering too. It reduces the blaming we do, and it reveals us to others. I've used it a lot in my marriage, and I think that's one of the reasons we have lasted this long. It's hysterical that it was another CLIENT at the rehab who thumped the idea into you. I thought instructors were supposed to do that!

Mia M. said...

reading this post was right on time for me. thanks for the reminder on the important use of "I."


Evelyn said...

How many DECADES did I spend watching my life happen? Yes, I'm slowly learning how to be a part of my own life. And, absolutely, I was EXPERT at putting on a persona. I can remember my teenage daughter getting right to the point, saying "Mom, you're wearing that fake smile!" She hated the fake smile.

Heidi Renee said...


Melissa said...

I know I have "I" versus "you" issues. I need to start being more aware as well. Thanks for this reminder.