I Am Not There

One of the most common mistakes I see among new writers is their tendency to believe that the speaker, or the “I”, being used in a poem or story refers to the author. With the exception of memoir and other autobiographical—sometimes called “confessional”—writing, this is almost never the case. Skilled writers understand that the use of “I” is only a tool, a narrative technique, to help them convey meaning. And although a skilled writer may draw from personal experience, and even add their own personality traits to a first-person narrator, we must never confuse the author with the speaker.

This misconception can lead to another mistake whenever new writers use “I” in a poem or story and assume that they must, in effect, talk about themselves. Although this practice can be therapeutic in a personal diary or journal, and even result in effective writing in the hands of a skilled memoirist, it should be avoided most of the time, especially for new writers. The reason for this is because most readers, to put it bluntly, do not particularly care about you—your sufferings, your dreams, your cuddly cats, etc.—and why should they?—they only care about how well you can express yourself in writing. Ironically enough, the more you can detach from your own ego and focus on better writing, the more people will take interest in you!

Take the following poem by Mary Elizabeth Frye in which she imagines herself as a dead person who consoles her loved ones by assuring them that she lives on in nature. The use of the first-person narrative technique is powerful here because it lends a voice to the dead person, reminding the reader that she is, in fact, not dead; it creates intimacy and authority by addressing the reader directly from the source; and it allows for all kinds of free play with personification as she identifies with specific aspects of nature.

Do not stand at my grave and weep

Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.

by Mary Elizabeth Frye (1905-2004)