In her January 2022, presentation, ‘I ‘vs. ‘Eye’: Tracy Crow discussed balancing the external with the internal
Most all writing—fiction, nonfiction, poem—combines both the ‘I’ and the ‘Eye.’ But what does that mean?
The ‘eye’ is what is happening, occurring in the physical world—the external. The ‘eye’ is the experience being witnessed, observed; the plot being told. The ‘eye’ is all sensory detail—the sights, sounds, smell, feel, taste—of an experience.
The ‘I’ is what goes on inside the character who is witnessing, observing—her thoughts and reactions that reveal her motivations, her yearning. The internal is personal to the character. The ‘I’ comments, analyzes, speculates and these personal musings are revealed through internal dialog, decisions, actions, and dialog with other characters.
The story is the emotional experience, the preoccupation of the writer, the insight, wisdom, that she brings to the page. The plot is the events that foster and hold that story.
In whatever genre you write in—creative nonfiction (including memoir and personal essay), fiction or poetry—there needs to be a balance between what happens externally, the experiences and circumstances that constitute the plot, and what happens internally, the thoughts and feelings of a character that constitute the story.
Vivian Gornick wrote: “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story.”
But William Faulkner wrote: “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” And the only way a reader can know that conflict is through the ‘I.’
“The reason so many memoirs fail is that they focus on the events or what happened and leave out the person to whom things happened.” Virginia Wolfe, “A Sketch of the Past”
In addressing Wolfe’s complaint, Michael Steinberg asks:
- How has the experience shaped or changed you?
- Has the change been revealed?
- What is at stake?
- (The stake is based on the emotional experience)
- What were the costs to you personally?
- (The cost is the loss or harm felt from the experience)
- What were you thinking when writing about the experience?
- What happens is not what matters. Your sense of what happened matters.
- Writer imagination is required to explore the internal, our vulnerability.
In other words, the story is less about the experience, than how the character experiences the situation. It is the writer’s imagination that can turn the mundane into art and make the piece gripping.
For example, in “Northeast Direct” Dagoberto Gilb writes about seeing a stranger reading his new book and takes the reader on a journey of doubt and speculation as he wonders if he should introduce himself.
And, “In Cloud Crossing,” Scott Russell Sanders’ observations of the natural world while on hikes trigger thoughts of personal and environmental challenges.
Another way to look think about the ‘I’ vs. the ‘Eye’ is from Patricia Hampl: “You give me your story, I get mine.”
That is, a writer tells of an experience, a circumstance in a story or poem, but when readers become engaged, we ask, ‘What would I have done? Said? Thought? Wondered?’
At first glance, ‘I’ implies a first-person point-of-view generally necessary in CNF and understood in poetry and used in fiction to provide the reader a closer look at the narrator. But when distinguishing between the ‘I’ and the ‘eye,’ ‘I’ can refer to any personal pronoun—you, he, she, they.
Don’t assume that readers will understand because you, the writer, think what you want to say is obvious. You, the writer, may not fully understand. Ask “What is the takeaway?” “What do I want readers to get from reading this story, this poem?”
Dennis Lehane had finished Mystic River before he realized what was writing about was gentrification. It was his preoccupation when writing the story. He went back to the manuscript and added detail so that his insight and wisdom, what he came to know about gentrification, ran throughout the story.
In “The End,” Judith Kitchen wrote: ‘The building of a process of thought is what interests the reader. The intimacy of the essay is a sharing of thought. We look as much for how an author approaches a subject as for the subject itself.’
She shares five elements that can be used to draw a piece to an end:
- Retrospection: a looking back, an assessment…speculating ‘what if’
- Intrusion: a stepping in, a commentary
- Meditation: a thinking through and around, finding a perspective
- Introspection: a self-examination, honest appraisal, and discovery
- Imagination: (as distinct from invention) an allowance for alternatives, projections, juxtapositions, whatever could provide a larger frame
While Kitchen was writing about essays, her suggestions can be used in other genres as well. Think about what happens after the character leaves the room: what does she remember, what does she thinks happened after she left?