By Amy McElroy
For those of us writing memoir, fiction in the first-person, or any other first-person narrative, we often find our drafts filled with first-person pronouns like “I,” “me,” and “my.” Cleaner, streamlined prose can present the action and description directly to the reader without the repetitive first-person pronouns that clog up sentences. First, we can simultaneously enrich our prose with powerful sensory images and strong verbs while eliminating the “I.” Sometimes a simple restructuring can tidy up a sentence full of first-person pronouns. But this kind of sentence juggling requires cautious attention to sticky grammar rules.
The reader knows who the narrator is. Just like when we learned we didn’t have to start basic essay writing with, “I think” and “I believe,” the same holds true when writing about sensory images from the first-person. By the end of the first paragraph, the reader should know, generally, who’s narrating the work, rendering repetition of “I” completely unnecessary unless it’s the best way to distinguish a thought or feeling from that of another character.
Extension of Sensory Imagery
The primary technique to remove the “I,” “me,” or “my” requires the use of sensory imagery because revising with this method accomplishes two goals at once: de-cluttering the prose and crystallizing the reader’s understanding of the narrator’s experience. Typically, we create sensory images using the narrator’s experience to “show, don’t tell.” In doing so, writers try to avoid basic “telling” phrases like “I see . . . ” or “I feel . . . ” including complex sentence structure, metaphor, and powerful verbs. Using sensory imagery to remove first-person pronouns from the narrative streamlines the revision process—achieving both goals simultaneously.
“I felt the earth move.” vs. “The earth shifted.”
“I saw my feet sinking in the sand.” vs. “Sand grew up and around my toes.”
“I see the leaves blowing on the tree. vs. “Leaves dance on the tree.”
In the second option of each example above, the nouns personify some expression of how the narrator perceives them: while sand doesn’t actually grow and leaves don’t actually dance, the idea that the sand and leaves could take on these human characteristics allows the writer to remove a first-person pronoun from the sentence and still express the way the narrator experiences those moments. While sensory imagery does not require personification, often this technique assists writers to remove “I,” “me,” or “my.”
Neither of the following examples of sensory imagery employ personification, but the first-person pronoun remains absent.
Ex: The leaves fluttered like moth wings.
Ex: The basement smelled like years of sweaty workout jerseys.
Most importantly, the new sensory image should create a stronger picture of the narrator’s experience for the reader than by simply using the personal pronoun.
A lengthy discussion of sensory images, “Sensory Description: Deep Beyond the Five Senses We Learned in Preschool,” appears at my website www.amyjmcelroy.net, and at Joel Friedlander’s May edition of Carnival of the Indies, http://bit.ly/1g5wEpL.
Occasionally, simply restructuring the sentence can reduce or eliminate first-person pronouns. This tool can be particularly helpful when the sentence conveys a series of very specific actions not easily conveyed by metaphor, or is surrounded by a number of other, complex metaphorical sentences.
Ex: “I walked down the sidewalk, and I put the letters in the mailbox before I turned to say hello to my friend.” vs. “After walking down the sidewalk, I slid letters into the mailbox before turning to say hello to Charlie.”
The first example above contains three “I”s and a “my,” while the second example only one “I.”
Avoid creating dangling modifiers in attempts to remove the “I.”
Often, in attempt to omit the “I” from prose, writers leave dangling modifiers in its wake on the page. To avoid dangling modifiers, remember that a clause must modify the subject in the other part of the sentence.
For example: draft version—“I saw a tree while I was wandering in a field near the lake.”
Possible rewrites to eliminate “I”—“In a field near a lake, a tree shimmered.” vs. “Wandering in a field near the lake, a tree shimmered.”
The first rewrite contains no errors, so long as the writer’s intention is to convey that the tree, not the narrator, was in the field because the clause, “In a field near a lake,” modifies the subject “tree.”
But in the latter rewrite, the clause dangles without the proper subject to modify. Certainly the “tree” is not the subject doing the action named in the clause, in this case, “wandering . . . ”
Avoid passive voice when removing the “I.”
Another common mistake when omitting first-person pronouns is changing sentences into the passive voice, where the subject is absent from the sentence.
Ex: “I felt the slippery particles of flour under my feet spilled on the kitchen floor.” vs. “The slippery particles of flour were spilled on the kitchen floor.”
The latter example contains the ghostly “passive voice,” and by omitting the pronoun, simply draws the attention to who may have spilled the flour, rather than the missing “I” who felt it.
While it may sound counterintuitive to think of “removing yourself” from the work in order to get closer to your reader, in fact, first-person pronouns add nothing more than a punctuation mark or basic dialogue tag—such as “I said”—used when absolutely necessary for clarity. Instead, sensory images and other more direct, concise ways to communicate with readers exist, as long as we are careful to avoid the grammatical pitfalls along the way. First-person narrative thrives in many genres published today. With careful revision, the indie community’s first-person stories can ring with powerful, imagistic prose, free of unnecessary pronouns, ready to connect with readers.