Hi, my name is Ariel Levy. I'm a staff writer at the New Yorker Magazine and the author of a memoir called The Rules Do Not Apply. I'm going to talk to you for the next four weeks about writing memoir and first-person essays. This week, we're going to talk about developing the narrator in first-person writing. They call writing about yourself first-person for a reason. When you're writing about yourself, you're writing about the person whose interests and flaws you are most intimately acquainted with, the person whose agenda you've spent your life trying to fulfill. The good news is that you have access to a ton of information about this protagonist. The bad news is that we all have blind spots that we need to overcome if we're going to be reliable narrators, and we must be. That's something writing memoir or personal essays has in common with writing in general. The reader needs to trust the writer. The reader needs to feel she is in good hands with the person leading her through the narrative. In order to provide that when I'm writing, I often find myself thinking specifically about the reader's needs, as in what does the reader need to hear to understand the character I'm trying to represent. It's not that I'm trying to please the reader. Frankly, it's more like I'm trying to manipulate the reader as well as I can. I think, what does he need to hear at this point in the story to feel the feelings I want him to feel or to understand the idea I'm trying to convey. So, it's actually the opposite of scrambling to be likable to the reader. I'm just selfishly trying to ensure I have the effect on the reader that I intend to. Right now, when I'm talking about a reliable narrator, I don't mean a well-behaved narrator. In Bill Clegg's fascinating memoir, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, we know from the very title that we're about to hear a story about someone who will almost certainly lie and put himself, and maybe other people, in dangerous situations. Indeed, on the very first page, Clegg writes, "Mark is squawking about a crack dealer he used to buy from who's been busted, how he saw it coming, how he always does, but I'm not paying attention. All that matters to me is that we've reached the end of our bag. The thumb-sized clear plastic mini ziplock that once bulged with chunks of crack is now empty. It's daybreak, and the dealers have turned off their phones." So, we know he's up to no good, right? He's not reliable in the sense of being someone you'd want to lend your call to. But he's reliable as a narrator because he's clearly honest about his own motivations. He tells us very frankly, "I'm not paying attention. All that matters to me is that we've reached the end of our bag." That's damning and humiliating, but he levels with us. So, already we can trust this narrator to tell us the truth about himself and his own internal life, and we can trust from the precision of the writing and the suspense he's already built in the first few paragraphs this is going to be a good story well-told. Moreover, we can tell this narrator is going to bring us into a world and really guide us. He's not going to assume we know that crack dealers all turned off their phones during the day. I didn't know that, and that is so important. One of the joys of reading is that we get to learn about another world, its customs, its aesthetic, its smells, and tastes, and sounds, the quarks that make it specific. This applies to the world of crack dealers, or the world of dry cleaners, or the world of Navy SEALs. Remember, your reader doesn't know that stuff about you and your world, unless you tell her. We're not all crack addicts, but we all inhabit our own particular universe, and since we're inside it, it can be easy to forget that the reader has no way of knowing what your apartment looks like, or your mother sounds like, or your kitchen smells like. So, in those Bill Clegg sentences, we find out that he's really going to take us by the hand. We can trust him to guide us on this journey, because this narrator is clear and frank, and we can also trust that there will be propulsive motion to pull us through this story. He's already got me wondering from the first few paragraphs what is going to happen, really get more crack, really overdose. What's the upshot of this unhinged behavior going to be? A feeling of propulsive motion in a story is counter-intuitively relaxing. You don't have to worry when you're reading a story with suspense and propulsive motion that you're going to get bored or that you're going to be lost in some mark where the writer is just ruminating and going nowhere. If you can feel motion while you're reading, you can relax. You trust that the writer is getting you somewhere and isn't just stuck in place or lost, and maybe you even forget for a while that there is a reader or a writer. You're just reading. You're just absorbed. So, that's something worth striving for. Even if you're describing a situation in which your narrator is out of control and desperate for crack at daybreak, you still want your reader to feel that the writer behind the narrator is in control and knows where she's going with the story. So, that's one of our many jobs as writers. We have to be the reader's guide through the story. We have to take the reader with us on the journey of our story and be aware that they don't know anything that we don't tell them, which can be particularly easy to forget when you're writing about yourself.