The Self as a Literary Construct

Jocelyn Bartkevicius | December 1999

Jocelyn Bartkevicius

Just a few weeks ago, a student in my literary nonfiction workshop wrote 19 vivid pages about his struggles with bipolar disorder. The pivotal scene describes a manic episode he experienced while trying to work in the computer lab with a woman he'd been hoping to date. The student depicts the gap between what is happening in his head (a rushing swirl of ideas, fears, and perceptions) and what is happening in the lab (a conversation about the project on the screen before them, which is increasingly difficult to maintain). In spite of the essay's blunt honesty and harsh details, the workshop began with several students expressing their disappointment in the way the writer "played it safe." This floored me. In a class where students were invited to choose any of a variety of subgenres of literary nonfiction—from nature writing to literary journalism to personal essay and memoir—the writer of the bipolar disorder breakdown piece (let's call him Jack) had explored the interior self with more risk and intimacy than any student that semester.

But Jack had written in third person. And although he used his own name in the piece, along with a multitude of other identity—revealing details, the workshop members couldn't read beyond third person. Their unexamined assumption: third person conceals, makes the self into the other so that the writer can escape responsibility. To these students, whose experience with literary nonfiction was limited to the assigned anthology, handouts, and memoir (This Boy's Life), third person in memoir was totally foreign. Without a frame of reference, they saw Jack's use of third person as the equivalent of his going to the counseling center and saying, "uh, I have this friend, and I think he needs help, and..." Contrary to my students' initial response to Jack's essay, I believe that third person narration in nonfiction is not a cover, that in fact it can uncover, play a role in bringing about revelations to both writer and reader.

Other than Bob Dole, few people speak of themselves in third person. Likewise, third person narration in memoir is rare enough to be unfamiliar to most readers, and so the technique may seem distanced (as my students saw it), coy, or contrived. Worse, readers new to the technique might consider it outright thievery, as if the memoir writer had broken into the house of fiction and made away with an exclusive bag of tricks. Putting aside for a moment the issue of "statesmen's" memoirs (which, as Stephen Spender has pointed out, often use third person to give autobiography the feel of biography and frankly emphasize event over character), and works by such writers as John McPhee, Norman Mailer, and to a certain extent Patricia Hampl (that focus on someone other than the self), I want to explore how some writers use third person to get at the essential self by, paradoxically, removing themselves from it, by repositioning themselves as observers of—rather than participants in—their own pasts.

It is true that memoir and personal essay writers often strive for conversational intimacy. As Virginia Woolf writes in "The Modern Essay," reading an essay can resemble sitting and talking with the writer inside a drawn curtain. Imitating conversation, however, is only one of many possible strategies, and telling a story (and choosing a point of view from which to tell it) is only part of the challenge. To distinguish it from a breezy anecdote, a memoir also needs a sense of character. But as Woolf points out in her own memoir, "A Sketch of the Past," many memoirists neglect character, and thus render their books failures. Woolf describes the problem as follows: "They leave out the person to whom things happened. The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: 'This is what happened'; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened." Story ("this is what happened") and character ("the person to whom it happened") are related, but not identical.

Writing about the self, most students and readers realize, requires a kind of subjectivity, an inductive exploration of the self as a visceral, living, thinking, and dreaming entity. But what they find more difficult to comprehend is that memoir writing is a dialectical process, and that after an initial immersion in memory, the writer must step back and become analytical and objective—not only to become more conscious of craft, and to judge whether the piece works æsthetically (as in writing any genre)—but also to understand this self, this character, that is coalescing on the page. What's at stake for that self? What is its story? Who was it? What affects did place and time exert? Or, as Vladimir Nabokov suggests in Speak, Memory, a memoirist could consider what "thematic designs" are present, what key imagery spirals through the life of that self. All of these acts are related to but different from the mere act of remembering or reliving the past.

Sometimes memoir writers momentarily slip into third person when they are distinguishing between the self as an object of artistic contemplation and the self they are submerged in daily—the one Frank McCourt referred to (in his talk at the AWP Conference in Albany) when he described getting up in the morning, looking in the mirror, and saying, "Oh no, another day with you." In such cases, third person emphasizes and articulates the distance between who the writer is while writing (and more holistically, his or her ever-evolving self) and the subject of the piece (his or her past self-especially during the time period depicted in the memoir—and the self as the protagonist of the completed action).

In "A Sketch of the Past," for example, after describing some early memories, Virginia Woolf breaks from her first person narrative to consider how to create herself as a character on the page. She writes: "I could spend hours trying to write that as it should be written in order to give the feeling which is even at this moment very strong in me. But I should fail (unless I had some wonderful luck); I dare say I should only succeed in having the luck if I had begun by describing Virginia herself." She even refers to herself as a creature, thereby exploring yet another dimension of "otherness," and further distancing her present self (who functions as narrator) from a previous version of that self.

Nabokov uses similar techniques in his memoir, Speak, Memory, where he refers to himself as both "he" and "creature." For example, an especially long passage of third person narration occurs in scenes that examine the years in which he used the pseudonym Sirin. Nabokov makes a more blatant and stunning use of third person in an ironic yet informative review of his own memoir (which appeared for the first time in a recent New Yorker). In one passage of that review, Nabokov attacks Speak, Memory for using third person—and yet the review itself is written in third person. In the midst of this irony, Nabokov considers how third person in memoir pertains to the writer's idea of the nature of "self," in particular, the difficulty of visualizing and depicting the self, a challenge he compares to the philosophical and æsthetic conundrum that results when an artist tries to capture visually-in a painting or photograph-the self who is seeing as well as the self who is seen. This problem, Nabokov notes, has been represented by mirror-image pictures, such as the one of "a girl holding a picture of herself holding a picture of herself holding a picture..." To Nabokov, writing a memoir is both an æsthetic and philosophical challenge, and third person narration can be a technique that addresses those challenges.

While Nabokov and Woolf use third person primarily to contemplate issues of craft, several contemporary writers use it as a narrative strategy for an entire piece or book, much as a fiction writer would. Lauren Slater, for example, includes in her collection Prozac Diaries one third person essay named, aptly, "The Third Person." In a largely first person book that explores lifelong struggles with illness, medication, and sexuality, this third person essay, which occurs late in the book, focuses on a current love affair. In "The Third Person," Slater uses present tense, which makes the story of the romance appear to unfold before readers, without reflection on the part of the writer. In this essay, third person narration serves to remind readers that the story is indeed crafted, that a more multi-dimensional person stands outside the story shaping it (and in so doing, reflecting upon it). For Slater, as for Nabokov and Woolf, third person functions as a technique for distinguishing between the narrator and protagonist-in this case, between the self who tells the story and the self who falls in love.

Slater adds still another dimension to her third person narration by directly commenting on the third person at the end of the essay that precedes it in the collection. There, she describes a moment in which, as a child, she stood before a home alarm system that was "so finely calibrated it could catch the fall of a leaf, a shadow's dart. But not me. Which is why, I think, I started to narrate myself as she-she-the most distant and impenetrable of the persons." Given Slater's claim that "she" is so distant and impenetrable, her use of "she" in an essay on love further suggests a disconnection between the self who tells stories and the one who experiences emotions. Perhaps, in an age that cringes at the mere suggestion of sentimentality, the use of third person in this case strives to create an antiseptic space by lopping off that time and self from the more familiarly objective and descriptive narrative of the first person essays in the collection.

J.M. Coetzee's memoir, Boyhood, also combines third person with present tense, but focuses on childhood. In this case, third person augments the temporal distance between the adult narrator (the observer and story shaper) and the child protagonist (the participant in the story). The boyhood Coetzee describes is full of harshness and duplicity, both in the surroundings (apartheid South Africa and its brutal social order and punishing schools) and in the self (a boy who sometimes betrays his mother and conceals cowardice and duplicity at school). Given the book's stunning and relentless use of sharp details of pain and cruelty, third person enables the readers-along with, one assumes, the writer-to distance themselves from both setting and character. We have access to the boy's point of view through the use of both present tense and vivid detail. But rather than creating the feel of conversation, as first person would, third person sustains the illusion of observation. The adult narrator and reader are positioned together as if in front of a screen, watching the young Coetzee act out a past that-although we see it unfold in the present tense—we know has ended. Third person draws attention to the distance; the adult narrator and reader are thus as removed from the action as they would be if the book were a third person novel and the narrator were someone other than the boy himself. And this is exactly the point; the technique stresses that the adult who tells (and shapes) the story is in a crucial way a different person.

Near the end of the memoir, Coetzee writes of an extraordinary moment of self-realization, a time when the sky seemed to open up, when he could see himself and his parents as if from a distant vantage-point, and with the objectivity of an observer rather than the usual solipsism and naïvete of the child he was. "The sky opens," he writes, "he sees the world as it is, then the sky closes and he is himself again, living the only story he will admit, the story of himself." Throughout the book, Coetzee as writer portrays his boyhood with the perspective that the boy himself can only glimpse at that moment when the sky seems to open. But he tells that larger story while also depicting the claustrophobic sense of self that is inherent in childhood. The third person narrative allows Coetzee to devote himself to telling the story of the boy himself, self-enclosed and self-absorbed, while portraying that boy as a creature of the past. The marvelous magic of Coetzee's third person, present tense narration captures these viewpoints—these subjective and objective selves—simultaneously.

It is this effect that "Jack," the student in my nonfiction workshop, experimented with in his essay about his bipolar disorder. By choosing third person, he attempted to isolate not only the story but also the self central to that story from his current storytelling self. For a writer with the goal of recreating in vivid detail an enclosed world of violence or a claustrophobic interior manic episode—or even a potentially sentimental story of love-third person can create the illusion of a separate sphere, an enclosure that reader and writer alike can enter and leave at will. Whereas—to borrow Virginia Woolf's metaphor—first person narration sustains the illusion of sitting inside a curtain talking with the writer, third person narration instead creates the effect of closing a curtain around the old experience and standing outside with the writer and peering in.

The "house of nonfiction," like the house of fiction according to Henry James, has many windows. It is made of memory, and memory has many angles. The self may be seen from inside or out, whether the observer is another person or an older self. Writers may position themselves inside the "I" and recreate the way the past was experienced, how the world came at them like a video game (as Phillip Lopate has described the personal essay). Or, they may position themselves outside, and emphasize that stance by referring to the past self as "he" or "she." To write in third person is to remember the past as if the sky has opened, as if from above looking down at a scene replayed. Because memory itself has many windows, conversational intimacy—worthy and traditional as it is—may not be the only goal in memoir. The writer may want to move over next to the reader, to point to the past that feels so solid and vivid and distant, the past that, through writing, seems to come back to life.


Jocelyn Bartkevicius teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida, where she is nonfiction editor for The Florida Review. Her work has appeared in such journals as The Hudson Review, The Iowa Review, Fourth Genre, and The Missouri Review.

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