The Self as Character: Writing in First Person Point of View

First person point of view remains one of the trickiest strategies for any writer, as well as one of the most effective and popular ways of telling a story. This class will provide key insights into writing in first person: thinking of yourself as a character in a story; changing your point of view in the course of the story; reaching a meaningful conclusion that will interest readers. We will discuss first person point of view in memoir, travel pieces, humor, and other genres.
1) THINK OF YOURSELF AS A CHARACTER – The first person you assume in the story is a selection, not your whole personality, and you want to select carefully so that the aspect of yourself that you highlight works well within the entire narrative.

The part of yourself that you emphasize will depend on the kind of story you’re planning to tell. In one story you may want to emphasize your competence at croquet, in another your incompetence at softball. But remember that you’re choosing a selection of yourself, not necessarily the whole person. In first person, you’re assuming an aspect of your personality, and turning that aspect into a persona, a character who fits within the larger story. The narrator is a part of you, not all of you.

In his essay, “Natural Narratives,” Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, advises using first person strategically.

“The key is to realize that once you’ve made the decision that you’re writing a first-person piece, you’re not done. There’s a second decision: Which first person? You have many identities when you’re writing. For example, I could approach a piece as a gardener. Or as a Jew. Or a son. Or father. As someone who lives in Berkeley, Calif. As any number of identities. When you’re writing in first person, you’re not using your whole identity. You’re choosing what is useful to your story.

With “Power Steer,” I wrote as a carnivore. This was an important choice. Because if I’d written about the meat industry as a vegetarian, nobody would have read what I wrote. I needed to start where my reader was. And odds were that my New-York-Times reader was a carnivore. It’s also much more interesting to find out what happens to a carnivore after he’s gone into the heart of darkness of the modern American meat industry than what happens to a vegetarian. Because you know exactly what would happen to a vegetarian: He’d say, “See, I told you so.” That’s not very interesting.”

I’ll be discussing additional strategies for first person writing on my blog in the days ahead. Please follow if it’s useful and forward to others. This is one of the many techniques I teach in my Seattle writing classes. Visit my website for more.

Scenic Leads the Key to Suspenseful Storytelling


These leads attempt to grab the reader through use of graphic detail and gripping suspenseful storytelling. These leads do not attempt to tell a complete story as do anecdotal leads, but they give the most appealing, eccentric or dramatic part of the story.

NEW YORK – Caprice Benedetti stared fixedly at herself in the mirror, surveying her beauty, and saw that her color was just not right, so she repaired that deficiency quickly. She daubed on a touch more lipstick. Self-absorption is expected of a model. It was late in the day, and she had already changed clothes and make-up a half-dozen times, piling new look upon new look. “OK,” she said. “I’m the next me.”

She bounced out of her apartment building in Manhattan, the doorman nodding to this latest version of her. Quickly, her long legs propelled her into the humming convoy of pedestrians, those who had uncomplainingly lived with the same look all day long. “Some days, I’m changing my face and changing my clothes 10 times,” she said. “I’m elegant. I’m casual. I’m chic. I’m downtown. I’m sexy. I’m theatrical. I begin to wonder ‘Who am I?’ I’m 10 different people. Where’s the real me? You have an identity crisis. Who is this?”

As she wove through the crowds, there were, as always, covetous stares, but no sense of recognition. For hers was not a face that many would know.

Caprice, as she is known professionally, is an average fashion model. She is not Cindy Crawford or Naomi Campbell or Niki Taylor, and never will be. She is one of “the other girls.” While she makes abundant money, never does her face decorate the covers of Vogue or Elle or Harper’s Bazaar. Never has she been the Clairol girl or the Revlon girl. She wallows in the vast anonymity of fashion, her scrupulously made-up face blurring with thousands of others.

From “Fame Can Elude Models Who Are ‘Just Average’” by N.R. Kleinfeld in The New York Times.

Anecdotal Leads: Tell a Compelling Story Quickly


Anecdotal leads tell a compelling story quickly and succinctly, a story which illustrates the larger point that the piece is making. These leads do not employ a lot of scenic detail, but instead rely on describing an action which makes clear the writer’s point. Use only strong, succinct stories for anecdotal leads.

“When I went off to college, my father gave me, as part of my tuition, fifty pounds of moose meat. In 1969, eating moose meat at the University of California was a contradiction in terms. Hippies didn’t hunt. I lived in a rambling Victorian house that boasted sweeping circular staircases, built-in lofts, and a landlady who dreamed of opening her own health food restaurant. I told my housemates that my moose meat in its nondescript white butcher paper was from a side of beef my father had bought. The carnivores in the house helped me finish off such suppers as sweet-and-sour moose meatballs, moose burgers (garnished with the obligatory avocado and sprouts), and mooseghetti. The same dinner guests who remarked upon the lean sweetness of the meat would have recoiled if I’d told them the not-to-simple truth: that I grew up on game, and that moose they were eating had been brought down, with one shot through his magnificent heart, by my father—a man who had hunted all his life and all of mine.

From Brenda Peterson’s essay, “Growing Up Game.”

The Five Best Ways of Opening a Story

“The easiest thing in the world for a reader to do is to stop reading.” Barney Kilgore, former editor of the Wall Street Journal.

The opening is the most important part of the story. If your lead is not interesting, intriguing or entertaining, the reader may never get any further. Therefore, you want to spend as much time as necessary finding a strong lead. Rewrite the lead until it sparkles, presenting a lively, exciting opening to the story.

Here are the five best ways of opening a story or book: summary, scenic, anecdote, inventory and beginning at the end. Each of these techniques pulls the reader into the story quickly. The type of lead you use in a given story depends on your material and the audience you want to reach. Scenic leads lend themselves to active stories; summary and anecdotal leads often work best with more reflective stories. But there’s no rule about it; go with what works best!

For more on lead, please consider signing up for my fall writing class.


Jim Holmes and Ryan Johnson
Jim Holmes and Ryan Johnson

Red Mountain rises above the low, brown sagebrush country outside of Benton City, Washington. Located northwest of the Tri-Cities, Washington’s smallest and most prestigious American Viticulture Area (AVA) looks more like a hill than a mountain, one of a series of rounded basaltic ridges marching southwest along the Yakima River.

The landscape is bare, dry, austere, nothing like the carefully tended gardens of Burgundy or the regal architectural jewel boxes of Bordeaux first growth Chateau Latour. There are no restaurants, hotels or wine trains on Red Mountain, but there likely will be someday. For now, the area is as pure and abstract in its undulating beauty as a landscape in Tuscany.

The road to Red Mountain follows the meanders of the Yakima River. The asphalt climbs past farms and discarded machinery. Unlike the world’s highly developed wine regions, this is still farm country, with an unfinished quality to it. I pass the white chiseled granite sign, Welcome to Red Mountain, the only indication that I’m approaching one of the premier wine growing regions in the world.

Rows of grape vines line the road. Carefully tended clusters of Cabernet, Merlot, and Syrah grapes hang from beneath the vines, reflecting the perfectionism of growers like Ciel du Cheval’s Jim Holmes, whose astonishing fruit reveals the power and elegance of the Red Mountain AVA. Wines made from these vineyards earn stratospheric scores from wine critics. Influential wine critic Robert Parker rates Quilceda Creek Vintners wines from this vineyard among the best in the world.

I turn left and head up the road toward Ciel du Cheval Vineyards to meet owner Jim Holmes, one of the pioneers of Washington State wine. In recent years, the industry has experienced staggering growth, from 155 wineries and 28,000 acres of vines in 2000, to 700 wineries and 40,000 acres today. As the industry explodes with growth and innovation, I sought to understand where it’s headed by talking with him, Red Willow Vineyard owner Mike Sauer, Nefarious Cellars of Chelan, Syncline Winery of the Columbia Gorge, Saviah Cellars of Walla Walla and Woodinville Wine Country, the center of the state’s industry.

Though not a winemaker himself, Holmes sells grapes to some of the best wineries in the state: Betz Family Winery, Andrew Will Winery, Delille Cellars, and McCrea Cellars. Red Mountain specializes in red varietals like Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. I park the car and greet Holmes, a sturdy man wearing jeans, a jean jacket and a baseball cap.

“Making great wine is like painting a great picture: you have to have some idea of what you want to paint before you put paint to canvas,” he says, indicating the vine rows. “We’ve got a great site – we’ve got great paint! If you want to make a great bottle of wine, you’ve got to think about what you’re doing in the field. You’ve got to know why you did this, and why you did that, and why one worked and the other didn’t work. You’ve got to keep working at those things because the desire is to put great art on the canvas. “

At 75, Holmes still enjoys the challenge. A systems engineer who grew up in the Bay Area north of San Francisco, he developed an early taste for wine. When he moved up the Tri Cities area in 1958 to work for Hanford, he wanted to drink some decent local wine. So he and partner John Williams eventually bought 80 acres of land on Red Mountain. A short time later, Washington State University professor Walter Clore released his ground-breaking report on Washington wine in 1972. It made the case for growing vinifera grapes in Washington. The rest is history.

“It was a great report,” Holmes says. “He’d done 20 years of research. It turned out to be the start of the whole thing.”

Clore’s data convinced Holmes that growing wine grapes was worth doing, but it wasn’t a sure thing. “It was a high level risk,” he says. “Anyone who planted grapes on Red Mountain back then could qualify as crazy.”

For the rest of the story, read the June issue of Alaska Airlines Magazine. For more on writing classes, please visit