Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

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.

Sometimes it can be surprising.  In his massive two-volume Faulkner: A Biography (1974), Joseph Blotner writes hundreds of pages in the third person, and then, late in the book, he tells of Faulkner's arrival on the campus of the University of Virginia, where he was to be writer-in-residence.  Blotner taught there, too.  And on page 1637 of his biography, I read a sentence that surprised: "In January," writes Blotner, "I had glimpsed him for a moment from the other end of the long, dimly lit corridor where he had made a brief visit to the fifth floor of New Cabell Hall."

First person!

These days, I see the use of first and second person just about everywhere in serious nonfiction of all sorts.  In her collection of essays Ill Nature (2000), the wonderful writer Joy Williams uses the second person throughout her "Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp" ("Wildlife is a personal matter, you think.  The attitude is up to you.  You can prefer to see it dead or not dead" (17).)

Colson Whitehead (so much talent!) throws pronouns and prescription to the winds in his terrific The Colossus of New York (2003).  "You start building your private New York the first time you lay eyes on it.  ... I started building my New York on the uptown No. 1 train"(4).  It gets wilder in other places--pronouns swirling around in his paragraphs like midges.

In last year's wonderful Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost, 1934-1961, Paul Hendrickson (who has won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction) regularly uses you to refer to Hemingway.  (He uses the first person throughout, as well.)  "After eight months away, with a new boat coming, with a new book brewing, with two of your boys and your wife and John and Katy Dos Passos and a half a dozen other friends waiting for you at the bottom of the steps, with live jazz, in the sunshine, you're home" (88).

And Paul Auster?  In his novel Invisible (2009) he has an entire section in second person.  And in his forthcoming memoir Winter Journal (which I'll be reviewing for the Plain Dealer) he uses the second person throughout, as if he is somehow addressing himself.  Check out his opening sentence: "You think it will never happen to you, that it cannot happen to you, that you are the only person in the world to whom none of these things will ever happen, and then, one by one, they all begin to happen to you, in the same way they happen to everyone else" (1).

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.

We need to teach our students about the vast power and subtlety and sinuousness and variability of our language, not tie their sentences to beds and chop or stretch them to fit our biases.  YOU know what I mean?

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