McPhee on the “I” in story

I never had any interest in writing about myself, or, Lord knows, in inserting myself between the reader and the material. But if the writer belongs in the piece, and needs to be there, he ought to be there. A New York Times reporter will get into a rubber raft somewhere and later write, A visitor stepped into the raft. Well, shoot. You’re in the piece if you have to be.

Here’s an example: in The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, a story of endless flight tests, there was no need to announce myself. I was obviously there, listening to it, scribbling it down—there’s no mention of me. And then we get all the way through sixty thousand words, nearly to the end, and that’s where the climax happened—this thing actually flew, at long last. And a guy named Everett Linkenhoker jumped in a Piper Cherokee to go up with it, to fly around, and I jumped in the plane beside him! And off we went. Now, I submit, who got in the plane? A visitor? So I said, “I went with him.” I turned in a sixty-thousand-word essay, and that was the only I in it. Robert Bingham, my editor at The New Yorker, couldn’t stand this. His nerves couldn’t handle the single pronoun. He said, That’s the only one. And I said, Look, Bobby, it’s the only one that belongs in the piece. He said, You’ve got to add another one. I said, Look, there’s no need of one anywhere. And he said, You’ve got to; it’s wrong; you just can’t have this thing over there. And I said, OK. So there was a scene, in a gas station, a garage where a mechanic was working on something—a gas station in Neshaminy, Pennsylvania. I thought, well, I could say that I watched him do that. So I put an I in there and maybe one other place and Bingham went home happy. 

from his Paris Review “The Art of Nonfiction” interview


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