The voice is a leaky vessel

Empathy and the first-person narrative in the era of Covid-19
By Jan Carson

During the spring of 2020 I spent four months writing and mailing Postcard Stories to individuals isolating as a result of Covid-19. I received a range of unique responses from my recipients: an envelope stuffed full of postage stamps, a home-made recipe book, several paintings and a - much-appreciated - crate of wine. However, I was a little taken aback when an older lady contacted me, offering to buy my brother some summer clothes.

I’d written this lady a story about a woman whose brother journeyed from China to spend Christmas 2019 with relatives in Belfast. Due to travel restrictions he was unable to return to China. In the story, this unfortunate man was enduring summer weather, (albeit a drizzly Belfast summer), with nothing but thick cords and woolly Christmas pullovers to wear.

It was a fictional story. The concept was slightly ludicrous. Unfortunately, I’d written it in the first person. When the lady read the words, “my brother,” she assumed “I” was narrating the story and, if “I” was narrating the story, it must therefore be true. Being a very nice lady, she was moved by my brother’s plight. She offered to send vouchers for a clothing store of his choice. My actual brother – not based in China – said I should have accepted these vouchers. “For the lady’s sake,” he said, “so, she doesn’t feel embarrassed about her mistake.” I suspected he had ulterior motives.

If I wrote something in an ‘I’ voice, it must be my own experience. If it wasn’t, why was I purposefully telling lies?

I set the lady straight, explaining that the story was fictional. This she understood. She was mortified by her mistake. I then attempted to unpack the concept of writing in the first person. This wasn’t so well-received. The lady had never heard of the first person. If I wrote something in an “I” voice, it must be my own experience. If it wasn’t, why was I purposefully telling lies? I made discrete enquiries with my own mother, (a woman of similar age and reading), and was shocked to discover she too had no concept of first-person writing. For the last 15 years, she’d assumed everything I’ve written in the first person to be a verbatim account of my own experience. I asked politely if this didn’t strike her as a little odd. I’m a magic realist, given to writing first person accounts of flying children and talking cats. “Oh no,” she said, “you were always prone to exaggeration.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. From Mark Twain to Zadie Smith, any novelist who’s ever begun a sentence with a personal pronoun will understand that some readers are incapable of separating the writer from the narrator. I pause here to sympathise with our unfortunate friends, the poets, whose every sentence uttered in the Lyric “I”, unless specifically stated otherwise, is assumed to be a personal meditation. Do readers assume poets are incapable of imagining anyone else’s experience? Do they honestly think poets are that self-obsessed? Possibly. There is a little more grace for prose writers. After all, we are liars and shapeshifters by trade. Readers expect us to make stuff up.

It’s the first person which seems to cause confusion. I’ve sat through dozens of post-reading Q&As where an audience member has interrogated me about a character’s actions or opinions as if they were synonymous with my own.

Sometimes the confusion is understandable. I’ve felt it myself when a text resonates with my understanding of an author. It’s difficult not to read Lolita or Portnoy’s Complaint without hearing Nabokov and Roth’s preoccupations and peculiarities echoing in their narrators’ voices. And the narrator of Jeanette Winterson’s 1985 novel, Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, (helpfully called Jeanette), seems to me, a fictionalised sounding board for the actual Jeanette whose story is told more explicitly in her 2011 memoir Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy?.

No matter how disparate the writer and narrator’s experiences, there’s a certain amount of authorial influence which leaks into a narrator’s voice. It can be almost imperceivable. I’m thinking here of both The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, where Ishiguro writes so very convincingly in a voice dissimilar to his own. However, even a masterpiece written in the first, will usually retain some slight thumbprint of the writer: a linguistic tic, a personal experience rendered fictional, a preoccupation with a certain topic, or an understanding of how emotions are felt and processed. The writer’s own voice may be so well translated it is almost undetectable. However, I’d argue that it remains present. It’s impossible to affect your own absence when writing in the first person.

Why even bother trying? Posing this question asks something essential about the very act of writing. Most writers, in committing their words to the page, have attempted to instigate a kind of menage a trois. As a writer I offer something of myself to my words. My words only come to life when experienced by my readers. The whole experiment relies upon the presence of lived experience. Without my understanding of life and language my words could not exist. Without my reader’s -possibly dissimilar- understanding of life and language, there would be no lens through which to process their meaning and implication.

As such, I’ve always believed that writing - and indeed reading - is an act of radical empathy. In creating a character who is not myself, or even reading about someone from a diverse background, I become temporarily present in an experience different from my own. George Eliot recognises the empathetic quality of literature when she writes, “a picture of human life as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.”

I’ve been facilitating community writing projects in Northern Ireland for almost 20 years. Here, the empathetic skills learnt through creative workshops have played a significant role in the peace process. Participants who come from different communities and rarely cross the traditional sectarian divide often begin to understand and even empathise with another’s experience by encountering their stories. As Barack Obama said, “When you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathise with the plight of others – whether they are close friends or distant strangers – it becomes harder not to act, harder not to help.” Or, in the case of Northern Ireland, harder to perpetuate the segregation, violence and prejudices many of us grew up with.

I spent much of the last two years working as a writer in residence with a group of older ladies from the Falls and Shankill areas of Belfast. We met weekly, physically and metaphorically crossing the Peace Walls that segregate the Nationalist Falls area from the Unionist Shankill, to drink tea and actively engage with each other’s stories. These were women who had a limited understanding of what life looked like on the other side of their Peace Wall. Separated by Northern Ireland’s education and housing system, occupying binary political and religious outlooks, the opportunity to practice empathy through engaging with another’s story proved to be a transformative experience. While I was careful to ensure each woman retained a sense of her own unique identity, they all emerged from the project more focused upon the shared aspects of their experiences than the issues which divided them. At the end of our first year together the women concluded a group poem with the line, “We are stuck together and stronger for it.”

Empathy played an integral part in this project. The women spent as much time discussing other people’s experiences and emotions as their own. However, an interesting thing happened when I asked them to write about an important historical event – the 1998 Peace Agreement- first from their own perspective, then from the perspective of someone from a different background. Almost all the women chose to write their own testimony in the first person, while the others’ accounts – though insightful and, to some degree, empathetic – were written in the third. I don’t believe this highlighted a failure of empathy, so much as a subconscious understanding of its limitations.

In Against Empathy, the psychologist Paul Bloom defines empathy as, “the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.”

It requires enormous amounts of imagination, humility and self-denial to appropriate a voice that is not your own

The advent of cinema and television has played an important role in establishing empathetic bias on a grand scale. Vast swathes of the population are now quite comfortable being pitched into a stranger’s experience. They can empathise with soldiers stagnating in the trenches during the First World War or astronauts preparing to orbit the moon without leaving the comfort of their living rooms. Empathetic awareness is not an exceptional trait. It is something we’ve come to expect in functional human beings.

However, fully occupying another’s experience strikes me as a much bigger ask. It requires enormous amounts of imagination, humility and self-denial to appropriate a voice that is not your own. Any serious attempt at writing in the first person is a form of amputation; your own voice, outlook and preoccupations must be set aside to allow the other voice the room to resound. Such writing demands careful research, servitude and a certain amount of alchemy. It is a mysterious, somewhat unsettling, thing, to find a ghost speaking from your own throat. Perhaps my wonderful Falls and Shankill writers were wise to choose the third person when writing another’s experience. The third offers both omniscient perspective and a distance not achievable in the first. It is a kind of safety net. Removed from the intimacy which comes with first-person writing, the writer is not so obviously implicated in what her narrator says or believes.

If I’d been aware such a genre existed, I’d have called my writing auto-fiction and used the term to disguise my own arrogance

For the most part I abandoned the first person when I left my 20s. Back then, I chose the first because I was new to writing and full of my own brilliance. I had things to say – important, wise and clever things – and I wanted to ensure they were attributed to me. Almost all my stories were thinly veiled vehicles for my own opinions and outlooks. Frequently, I didn’t even bother with the veil.

I abandoned the pretence of character and wrote fictionalised versions of myself, fully acknowledging my presence in these stories. If I’d been aware that such a genre existed, I’d have called my writing auto-fiction and used the term to disguise my own arrogance.

The Australian novelist Stephanie Bishop notes the same propensity to plead the first in her young creative writing students: “When they write in the third person it is often rigid and un-giving: the lives of others are not really there, they have not yet imagined them, or inhabited them.”

Bishop notes her own progression from first to third around about the time she became a mother. She found herself narrating the world to her daughter in a voice which was predominantly third, (Mummy is doing X. Baby is doing Y). Acknowledging that her sense of self existed in relation to other people had a radical impact on how she wrote. “I could not write in the first person,” she says, “because I did not exist as one.”

I understand where Bishop is coming from. I’ve spent most of my adult life juggling community arts facilitation and my personal writing practice. I live in the community I write about and spend significant amounts of time helping this community engage with its own story, of which I am an active part. As a writer in community, the line between public and private, individual and communal are blurred at best, frequently non-existent. I’ve become increasingly aware that I am both shaped and grounded by this collective experience. I am a continually evolving product of all the interactions I’ve ever had, or as Louis MacNiece more eloquently put it, “incorrigibly plural”.

This realisation has made it more and more difficult to write well in the first person. If I’m struggling to separate my own voice from the crowd of clamouring influences, how can I even begin to effectively appropriate someone else’s? I am a coward when it comes to writing. For 15 years, I’ve mostly stuck to the third person, occasionally dipping into the second when I wish to pretend I am one of those edgy, experimental writers (I’m not).

Three years ago, while I was writing my second novel, The Fire Starters, my editor Alice suggested switching one of the two protagonist’s stories from third person to first. She thought it might help to establish either Jonathan or Sammy as the novel’s leading voice. I read her notes in a car park and emailed back, “ok, no problem,” then sat frozen behind the wheel of my car for almost two hours, terrified by the thought of writing what amounted to 30,000 words in the first person. In the end I chose to write Jonathan’s sections of the novel in the first person simply because he was more like me. Jonathan and I were about the same age. We come from similar middle-class backgrounds. I am also socially awkward, bookish and a little repressed. I’m ashamed to say I reverted back to my early writing practice: self-obsession with a generous helping of artistic license. I wrote Jonathan in my image, changed his gender, gave him a child and hoped nobody would notice how similar we were.

I didn’t even consider writing Sammy’s story in the first. How could I possibly speak in his voice? We had almost nothing in common. I’d never been a man, or old or – thank goodness – a paramilitary. But I had encountered dozens of men similar to Sammy in my community arts projects. I could blend these borrowed experiences, placing them within the context of my own understanding of East Belfast’s psycho-geography, and write a reasonably convincing third person version of an older, male ex-paramilitary.

Could I have managed this in the first? I honestly think it would’ve killed me. Half-way through The Fire Starters, there is a short first person monologue narrated by Sammy. His voice is so troubled and violent, writing this section literally gave me nightmares. It took almost a month to craft these three short pages and, though I’m reasonably content with the end result, I still didn’t manage to erase my own voice completely. Sammy uses a number of Biblical allusions which I lifted from my own childhood and grafted into his.

Zadie Smith, in her excellent essay on the first person asks, “How many times can you say ‘I’ and still ask a reader to believe that this is still the I-who-is-not-you?” Writing a substantial chunk of a novel in the first person only served to remind me of what a leaky vessel first person narration is. No matter how adamantly a writer purports to be speaking in someone else’s voice, it isn’t possible to achieve the intimacy necessary to write convincingly in the first, without leaving a little part of yourself behind. After I’d completed The Fire Starters, I resolved to give the first a wide berth. I wrote two entire novels in the third. They were draining in their own way but did not require the kind of ongoing exorcism demanded by a first person narrative which would inevitably be haunted by my own voice.

During lockdown I struggled to imagine the experience of others because the only experience I had access to was my own

During the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020, the first person came back to bite me. Though I made many, many, (you would not believe how many), thwarted attempts at writing in the second or third person, these stories simply refused to take off. They were flat and unbelievable. The characters did not read like real people. The first came easily to me during the four months of Lockdown when I lived alone, in almost complete isolation, only engaging with the outside world when absolutely necessary. This existence was such a stark and unsettling contrast to my lifestyle pre-Covid, (constant travel, a hectic social life and almost daily public appearances), the change had a radical impact on my writing. During this strange period, I struggled to imagine the experience of others because the only experience I had access to was my own. My entire sense of self began to shift. For a brief period, I was no longer an outward-looking, connected and communal type of being. I was an individual: cerebral and bounded by the limits of my own thought life. Quite naturally, I wrote in a self-obsessed version of the first because I could not imagine, let alone empathise with, anyone who wasn’t me.

In her third novel, Eimear McBride writes, “to be alone in the head is bliss.” I read Strange Hotel just before Lockdown and once again as Lockdown eased in early summer 2020. I’d spent much of the interim period alone in the head and for the most part found it far from bliss, though I could resonate with McBride’s portrayal of an isolated protagonist forced deep into her own psyche.

Strange Hotel is narrated in an extremely close third, occasionally tripping into first. McBride’s narrator is so intimately aware of the character’s inner life, I retained the impression that it was actually a regular first person narration. In the novel the unnamed female protagonist occupies a series of equally anonymous hotel rooms in different cities. The detachment and isolation of these spaces mirrors her sense of self as strictly-defined and independent. This is a woman with a strong sense of her own autonomy. And yet, in a series of rich insights, reminiscent of Virginia Woolf, the reader is permitted to glimpse the psychological squavering and questioning this woman subjects herself to as she interrogates her sense of self. She may well be alone in her head, but the bliss she’s experiencing certainly isn’t quiet. She is constantly constructing and deconstructing her own identity. This woman is intentionally cognisant of the impression she’s leaving on others.

And here, (albeit in an intimate third), is McBride’s own voice, leaking into her character. McBride’s pre-occupations are with women being seen and women seeing themselves. She has a healthy Joycean interest in how a character’s inner and outer lives blur. Her writing, like the woman portrayed in Strange Hotel, makes calculated decisions about what she wants the reader to see, then subtly reveals the mechanisms behind this process. I am in awe of her ability to maintain this tension.

Let me draw another comparison with Virginia Woolf, who writes in a powerful essay on narrative voice in the Brontes’ writing, “the self-centred and self-limited writers have a power denied the more Catholic and broad-minded. Their impressions are close-packed and strongly stamped between their narrow walls. Nothing issues from their words which has not been marked with their own impress.” I’m not for a second suggesting Eimear McBride is self-centred, only that she, like Woolf, understands her own voice – its preoccupations and complexities – and wields it with powerful intent through the characters in her novels.

Lockdown forced me to spend a great deal of creative time inside my own head, constructing and deconstructing my sense of self; considering how it manifests in the voices I choose to write. I spent much of this period working on a Radio 4 commission, writing a series of 10 linked monologues.

I realised that I no longer believe in empathy as I’d previously understood it

I was grateful to be writing in the first person. As previously mentioned, all attempts at writing anything more equivocal had proven disastrous. Though I did my best to convince my longsuffering producer these monologues were voiced by a disparate range of individuals, it quickly became apparent that they were just vehicles for my own interests and preoccupations. One character was wrestling with spiritual doubt, as I was at the time. Another was obsessed with Agatha Christie. It was no coincidence that I’d spent much of 2020 reading Christie’s novels in chronological order. One was a creative struggling with writers’ block, (a problem I faced on a daily basis). Almost all my characters were vocalising issues and biases peculiar to the tiny part of the world I come from.

I’ve heard several writers claim that writing helped them process and navigate the anxiety associated with Covid-19. Sometimes writing actually is the cheapest form of therapy. As I reviewed my Radio 4 monologues before submission, I had to admit that I’d projected my own fears and questions onto my characters. I’d tried to walk empathetically in their shoes, maintaining some level of authorial perspective and ended up possessing them. There were ten of these “unique” voices in the series and they all sounded like me.

I can now admit myself incapable of writing in the first person with any kind of authorial distance. I suspect most writers, if they’re being honest, will acknowledge a similar muddying of the first person voice. During Covid-19 my thinking on the subject progressed even further. I realised that I no longer believe in empathy as I’d previously understood it.

Obviously, this had huge implications on my attempts to write empathetically. I’m not against empathy, though I do agree with Paul Bloom’s argument that empathetic focus on an individual or community can leave us biased and blind to wider perspectives. I continue to believe empathy is a positive thing. We should make every effort to imagine what life is like for other people. To avoid empathy is to approach the world intentionally blinkered. James Baldwin, in Notes of a Native Son, highlights the division and prejudice which inevitably result from an inability, or refusal, to consider perspectives outside your own personal ambit. Though targeted at Americans, his words resonate particularly loudly here in Northern Ireland and, no doubt, ring equally true anywhere segregation and ignorance is rife. “Americans who evade, so far as possible, all genuine experience, have therefore no way of assessing the experience of others and no way of establishing themselves in relation to any way of life which is not their own.”

I am not questioning the worth of empathy. What I’ve lost faith in is the idea that it’s possible to occupy anyone else’s experience; to “walk a mile in their shoes”.

Empathy as I’ve come to understand it is as an unattainable, though nonetheless worthy, goal. I can try to imagine what life is like for someone else, but I am not the other person. I will inevitably fall back on my own experiences and emotions as a lens through which I try to understand what they’re going through.

In Slouching Towards Bethlehem Joan Didion writes, “Our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always transparently, shamelessly, the implacable, ‘I’.”

I have no resource through which to process another’s experience, save the emotional and experiential building blocks of my own self. I am myself. I am not the other. Therein lies empathy’s limitations. When a friend confides in me, I might say, “I understand how you’re feeling,” but I can’t possibly understand how they’re feeling. All I can do is attempt to practice sympathetic thinking by invoking a composite experience of my own. At best an empathetic assurance can be well-intentioned. At worst, it can come across as hopelessly reductive or dismissive.

Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, I lost track of how many times I heard the statement, “We’re all in the same boat.” We were definitely not all in the same boat. Granted, most, if not all people, were experiencing some level of difficulty, but each person’s difficult was a different version, peculiar to their own particular circumstances, resources and coping mechanisms. I, as a single woman living alone, struggled with loneliness and isolation. My married friends, who lived just a few streets over, struggled with the claustrophobia and lack of privacy that came from holing up with small children. It would be ludicrous to claim I fully empathised with their version of “difficult”. Equally, I’d have felt patronised if they’d claimed to understand mine. Yet, there we were, supposedly, “in the same boat” with almost 8 billion other human beings, all attempting to negotiate the Covid-19 experience. Covid-19 forced me to question my understanding of empathy; both how I empathise on a human to human level and through my writing. If, as seems to be the case, all my attempts at relational empathy are filtered through what Joan Didion calls the “implacable, ‘I’”, then it’s unsurprising that my own voice leaks out every time I seek to appropriate another’s voice in my stories.

On a social and interpersonal level this more limited understanding of empathy isn’t necessarily a negative thing. I believe it allows us to connect more honestly and helpfully with each other. If I can’t arrogantly assume to understand what another person is going through - no matter how closely my own experience mirrors theirs – I must acknowledge that this person has full autonomy over their own experiences. It isn’t my place to second guess how they’re feeling or patronise with unsolicited advice. I can still be sympathetic and compassionate. I can be present in the other person’s experience, learning and letting them take the lead. In short, I can practice solidarity without trying to make another’s personal experience all about me. I actually think this is liberating. Imagine for a minute, how different the current political landscape would look if, even for a week, we all acknowledged our inability to fully comprehend our differences, yet still chose to practice solidarity with our fellow human beings.

Though I am quick to acknowledge the limitations of empathy, I believe it is still essential to identify the commonality in each person’s experience. No matter how disparate a person’s experience might be, no matter how far beyond my empathetic capacity it may lie, I must be able to recognise myself in their experience. At the most fundamental level their humanity must resonate with mine. When Doris Lessing speaks of, “the atrophy of the imagination that prevents us from seeing ourselves in every creature under the sun,” she isn’t talking about assuming we fully understand another’s experience. She’s acknowledging that we are all connected by something stronger and more essential than experience: we are living, vital beings. Perhaps it is no bad thing that humans struggle to separate their sense of self from their understanding of the other. Such thinking emphasises our shared humanity. To remove all empathetic connection risks dehumanizing the other and history has taught us that viewing people as anything less than fully and gloriously human inevitably leads to prejudice, intolerance and persecution.

What then of writing, and my old nemesis, the first person narrator? If empathy’s a concept comparable to infinity, (something I haven’t a hope of fully grasping), then what’s the point in trying to inhabit another’s voice? I have to agree with Zadie Smith when she says, “it is not possible to render a real human being even partially in sentences. Echoes, shadows, inverses, fragments – this much writing can do. But the whole enchilada lives on a different plane.” I’m like God when it comes to creating characters; I can’t help but make them in my own image. Perhaps I should abandon the first and stick to the shallows, continuing to write in oh-so-forgiving third.

I don’t think I can. These last few months I’ve begun to feel a new novel stirring inside me. Worryingly, this book is demanding to be written in the first. The story revolves around a number of Belfast women. They are narrating the city’s past and present through a particularly female-centric lens. They all wish to speak in their own voices. Don’t ask me how I know this. Some characters approach the writer submissively, others arrive fully formed and stating their terms loudly. As a writer I feel painfully close to this story. It is my present experience. It is also the story I have inherited from the women who inhabited this city before me. Each time I scribble down a note or think about the novel’s characters, two lines from Marie Howe’s poem, Prologue come to mind; “And the woman who had been healed grew tired of telling her story/ and sometimes asked her daughter to tell it.” It feels like I have been asked to write this story; commissioned by the women who went before. I don’t want to remove myself from the narrative because it’s my story too. Neither do I want to unintentionally dominate their voices with my own.

I don’t think I’m brave enough to disobey a whole rake of feisty, long-dead Belfast women. So, I’ve resigned myself to wrestling with the first. I’ll do my best to give my characters room to breathe and blossom. I’ll spend hours pounding the pavements allowing their voices to occupy my head. I’ll note our differences and similarities and attempt to hold both in constant tension. I’ll try not to make these women in my image.

I’ll try and fail and try again and wonder, as I often wonder after a difficult day at my desk, if failure isn’t a kind of blessing. Failure gives me something to aim for. Failure reminds me I have so much more to learn. Failure keeps me sharp and keen.

The perfect narrative voice, like the perfect novel, will never exist but I intend to spend the rest of my writing life failing in pursuit of it. I can say with certainty that I’m never going to master the first person. It’s a leaky vessel, and I’m the kind of writer who’s inclined to leak.