Foils And Other First Person Tricks

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Years ago, my students didn’t have access to the first person. I’d keep the pronoun “I” under lock and key. A first person perspective by a reporter was dangerous, I thought. To gain access to “I,” students would have to prove it would help tell the story – and the bar was high.

I was much too afraid students would write about themselves and listeners would lose sight of the characters in the stories they were producing. “It’s not about you,” I would say. Besides, I figured, there was always a way to avoid writing a story with “I.”

I still have those worries, but I’m much less rigid about the first person today. “I” is no longer locked up.

What changed? One Hundred Years of Stories – a year-long series about the lives of centenarians, people 100 years or older. Neenah Ellis produced by this series in 2000. Her adroit use of “I” was a game changer for me. In fact, fifteen years after the series aired on NPR, I still play the opening story as an excellent example of how to use the first person.

Neenah was like me, initially. She shied away from bringing herself into stories. It was contrary to her training in journalism. One Hundred Years of Stories was a major departure for her. And she jumped into the first-person deep-end. The stories needed it, she says.

Neenah’s use of “I” wasn’t casual. For instance, she didn’t simply say things like, “Jane Doe showed me into her kitchen” and then we never hear “I” again. Instead, Neenah used practically every trick in the first-person book: she’s a foil setting herself as an opposite of the characters in the stories, she goes on a journey, she synthesizes and interprets, etc., all in service to the story.

In addition to these reasons for writing in the first person, Neenah says she got close to the centenarians, friendly even. If she had written at a more “reporterly: distance, she would have sounded out of synch with the tape and the relationships she’d built.

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Listen to “I couldn’t be detached”

Neenah, who reported the series over the course of a year or so, says that eventually the restraint she felt about the use of first person loosened. You can hear how far she came in the final episode.

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Listen to “Reflections at the end”

On this edition of HowSound, Neenah talks about the series and what she learned about using “I” when reporting a story. And, we play lots of great examples from several of the stories. By the way, this is also the 100th episode of HowSound. Please raise a glass in our general direction!

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