The “I”

Ursula K. Le Guin may have coined the most succinct description of the character called I that’s constructed on the page: “I am an artist… and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth.” The first sentence establishes the primary identity of the “I” and describes her reason for her self-examination; the second sentence declares that the “I” is unreliable and shows that the author is aware and open about her unreliability; and the third lets the reader know that her examination of her unreliability is a tool which allows her to better illustrate the truth of herself, her purpose, her story. It is the combination of the last two statements that helps the author earn her reader’s trust. But all three elements are necessary when developing a reflective piece of creative nonfiction.

Sandell Morse uses all three elements in “Canning Jars,” which describes an encounter with an anti-Semitic antiques dealer while Morse day-tripped with a friend in Virginia. Morse and the salesman haggle over the price of a set of glass canning jars that she hopes to purchase as Hanukkah gifts for her sons. Morse smiles as they agree on a price. But the salesman does not smile:

…I’m not prepared for what he says, can’t believe I’m hearing it correctly. I lean in. His words slur. Understanding seeps, slowly, so slowly that he must repeat. ‘I hate a woman Jew.’

The blow is swift, rushing quickly into my stomach where revulsion and fear swirl in a vortex. …I want to move but I can’t. I feel rooted and mute, and I wonder: Does he see a telltale sign? Smell an odor?…

I wonder if I’ve done something wrong—played the game incorrectly, been too cheap, should’ve gone up. And so I take what it is that is happening here in this room into my gut where it opens up old wounds. …

In her portrayal of this scene, Morse has to avoid recreating her subjects, the salesman and herself, as cliched characters. If she portrays herself as a perfect character who is not self-critical or self-reflective, or as a victim who is self-righteous, or if she simply portrays the salesman as a monster, she will lose the brutal complexity of the fact that this is an ordinary man, a quiet shop, a sunny day and that she is an ordinary woman, full of faults and self-doubts. But by describing her own process of handling the crisis and questioning her individual response to the ancient fear she bears, Morse encourages the reader to trust her ability as a writer to critique and evaluate her own actions as well as the actions of her nemesis. She constructs her persona through reflection.

In an interview, Morse reflected on her process of “researching” herself in order to create her narration for “Canning Jars,” using the terms I and eye to discuss the dual function of an author in a personal essay. The latter term describes Morse’s ability to show the reader what she is witnessing, to allow the reader to see through her eyes as if they are two camera lenses. The former term depicts the author’s actions and mediations, as if a camera were trained on them. In the same interview, Morse discussed the function and construction of a nonfiction narrator: “We must remember that the ‘I’ (eye) of creative nonfiction is a persona,” she said. “The ‘I’ of one essay is not the ‘I’ of another.”

As Morse and Le Guin point out, the function of the “I” within creative nonfiction tends to be different than that of the “I” of journalism, whose primary tasks are usually narration and argument and who tends not to have a life or story of his or her own. Writers of creative nonfiction have more space to question the biases, actions and intentions of the “I” within a piece, while still maintaining authorial control over their stories and conveying information. As a result, both writer and reader learn more about what it means to be and to study the “I.”