Wednesday, June 13, 2012
You Is Bad?
The other day, a former student approached me in a coffee shop. I had noticed her a bit earlier, down at the other end of the room, seated at a little table, staring at her laptop. A couple of times she'd gotten up, wandered a bit. And now she had wandered my way. She said hello. And I asked her what she was doing.
"I'm writing a paper."
"No wonder you're up and walking around," I said. "Beats writing!" I spoke as an authority on how many errands and/or chores I can find to do when I'm writing something I'm not ready to write.
She told me she was taking a summer session class at Kent and had to write a personal response to something or other (can't remember--film? a reading?).
"And what's giving you trouble?" I asked.
"I can't use I," she said.
My tongue outraced my brain: "That's ridiculous!" I saw the look of surprise on her face, so I laughed. Ha, ha. Just kidding. And then I asked her why she can't use I in an essay of personal reaction.
"I don't know," she said. "It's what my teachers kept telling me."
"Writers use I all the time," I said. "And"--I paused for dramatic effect--"they use you all the time, too."
This was too much heresy; back she went to her laptop.
And I started thinking about some of the silly rules we've pounded into our students over the years. Okay, class, we have first person pronouns--second and third too. But in your writing, don't use two-thirds of them. They're evil.
Okay, I exaggerate. We don't tell them that I and you are evil, just ... wrong. Somehow wrong.
Of course there are certain conventions associated with writing certain kinds of essays (the kinds kids most often write in school)--essays of traditional literary criticism and their procrustean prescriptions. But these essays compose only a tiny island in a vast ocean on a huge planet in a limitless universe of writing. Out in the "real world" (i.e., not the classroom) "real writers" use whatever damn pronouns they like. All the time.
So what I'm suggesting is this: We need to deep-six some of the silly rules and proscriptions we pound into our students. Of course writers use first and second person (the entire memoir genre employs the former; the latter is becoming more and more prevalent, more and more subtle in its uses). Teaching kids never to use them (and never, say, to use the passive voice) is ridiculous--like telling a pitcher never to throw a slider, a painter never to use blue, a musician never to use certain keys or time signatures.