By Edward Scissorhands
“Are dolls scary because they’re lifelike or because they’re so clearly not?”
Halloween is a good time to talk about first-person. Is it real, is it a mask, or is it something darker? One problem with first person is that everyone is unique. Eight billion people means eight billion first-person voices. How does the reader’s ear listen to such a large choir of solos?
Our brains will do what they always do—make associations out of the random array. The author, anticipating this, cannot help but smooth out the corners, adding some myth or gesture to their unique first-person. If a person is what a person does, and people can only do a few things, then there aren’t that many unique voices. Haven’t we all walked alone into a restaurant and said to the host: I’ll take a booth. My first-person archetype will be joining me shortly.
The easiest way to open your first-person voice is through your personality since there are only eight or so personality types. Are you shy? Do you recoil when an adjacent passenger’s shoulder touches yours in midflight, or do you use that stranger’s rotator cuff for a pillow? Are you a doer, a nurturer, a glutton?
To all the searches in anyone’s book, the search for love and empathy and beauty and truth and plot, and interesting characters and arresting images, it’s important to add the search for first-person, the search for voice, and hope it’s never found. How often have we read a poet who has found his ‘voice’ only to spend the rest of his life sounding like a parody of himself like Billy Collins or Woody Allen?
Just like that, someone’s unique personality is doing all the speaking, all the writing, and making discoveries that feel predictable. If you see your true voice in the distance, cover your ears, close your eyes, and move the other way.
With personality comes personal rhetoric, especially now that social media requires us to spend an hour or so each day to cultivate our fictive internet persona. But personal rhetoric has little to do with using personal story—our unique experience with anything—to make art that can be transferred to others.
Art comes from essence, and if essence is dominated by personality, and personality takes over first-person narrative, then Houston has a big problem: no oxygen, no fuel, no heat shield, no memorable story (no matter how clever the plot or original its characters, no intrinsic dream of everything. Such art can show us the flower, but it cannot bring us into the bloom.
Fortunately, there is a remedy to protect our essence from our personality: the first-person voice as a mask. I can be me. I can be Wednesday Addams. I can be Edward Scissorhands.
The secret of a good mask is to know and embrace its persona. It isn’t so important that a mask be an idealized version of the self as that it be a different version. As writers, we often consider, would my character do this? Would she feel this way about that? We also need to ask ourselves would my first-person persona order her broccoli medium rare? Would she say that, think this, react a certain way?
If you know everything about a persona beforehand, then you haven’t got a persona. You’ve got a caricature of one. This is only one of the many geniuses of Tanya Grae’s new collection, Undoll (Yes Yes, 2019) in which the poet rejects personality in favor of something new and different. Ironically, her book was blurbed by Collins. That’s the world we live in.
We need to make our first-person voices like those dolls—scary in their attempts to be real, but even scarier in how they’re not–and use revelation to do the undolling at the end.
Edward Scissorhands was born in California where he was home-schooled by his elderly father who unfortunately died before being able to attach Edward’s hands. This is his first published essay and has been excerpted from his manuscript The Myth of First Personhood.