In this month's blog post, Mimi Schwartz's "Let's Remarry the 'I' and the 'Eye,' " Mimi makes the case for remarrying the authorial 'I' with the 'Eye' of observation and analysis in school and academic writing.
Let's Remarry the 'I' and the 'Eye'
By Mimi Schwartz
In the middle of The Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin writes this about his pigeons:
"Believing that it is always best to study some special group, I have after deliberation, taken up domestic pigeons. I have kept every breed which I could purchase or obtain and have been most kindly favored with skins from several quarters of the world...."
Evidently in 1859 an anecdote using 'I' three times in twenty-six words was acceptable in a major treatise involving observation and analysis. Not so by the 20th century when ' I' became "pronoun non-gratis" in the world of ideas and research.
"Never use I " was a mantra in academia, business and journalism, as if the eye of observation could think and assess by itself. No wonder the passive voice held sway! Had Darwin published his theory of evolution a century later, his editor would surely have said, "Cut the pigeons!"
In the 1970s, when I started teaching, a movement was underway to challenge the rhetoric that separated 'I' from 'Eye.' Led by Janet Emig, Don Murray, Steve Judy, Peter Elbow and others—we writer/educators developed a pedagogy that encouraged student writers to do what veteran writers actually do. Let them write to discover meaning inductively—without rigid thesis statements and five-paragraph proscriptions. Let them find an authentic voice by valuing their own thoughts. Let them experience how the subjective 'I' and the objective 'Eye' can work in tandem, not just in "creative writing"—but in analytic essays. Let them study models that combine analysis and passion, such as poet and literary critic, Alicia Ostriker, does in her essay on Adrienne Rich:
"She wrote angry poems, love poems, poems of hope and despair, poems of terror and courage. Her own and others. Yes, she wrote feminist poetry and lesbian poetry, and was adored and attacked for it. Yes, she wrote of 'the suffering hidden in plain sight: in America and in the world…' She inspired two generations of American poets. Inspired their writing. Changed their lives. Our lives. My life."
We reformers were optimistic. From middle school English to college comp, the 'I' was making headway against its rival pronoun 'one.' The pedagogy of "Think before you write!" was being challenged by the practice of veteran writers like E.M. Forester asking: "How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" And the power of revision was enhanced by writers such as James Michener, who would readily admit: "I have never thought of myself as a good writer… But I am one of the world's greatest rewriters." School writing was embracing discovery on the page—not just repeating what you already know (or pretend to know).
And then it stopped. By 2012, my grandchildren, attending good public schools in New Jersey and Massachusetts, told me their English teachers warned them to never use 'I" except in personal essays because "no one cares about your opinion. It's not about you, but what experts say." You couldn't use 'I believe', they assured me, "because you have to sound as if this is what everyone thinks."
What happened? Why this regression to anonymity and proscription? I did a Google search for "What makes a good essay?" and discovered SparkNotes advice for improving SAT essay scores. Using two student essays about failure, it compared a top-scoring #6 to lower-scoring #4 .
"Learning the lessons taught by failure is a sure route to success (THESIS STATEMENT). The United States of America can be seen as a success that emerged from failure: by learning from the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, the founding fathers were able to create the Constitution, the document on which America is built."
#4 essay began:
"Failure can sometimes lead to success. Many Internet commerce businesses have learned from the terrible failures of the dot.com boom and bust, and today are in much stronger …positions than they were just a few years ago."
I liked this second with its hint of a person behind the words—and its use of active verbs and words like "sometimes," indicating a mind at work. But it turns out that "sometimes" is what got this writer into scoring trouble. The #4 essay, according to a SparkNotes' assessment, " …is not resoundingly clear from the start. The thesis statement is vague and makes the essay wishy-washy, which makes it weaker overall than the #6's unwavering start." (Italics are mine.) No wonder we live in an age of polarization and the inability to compromise! What else is possible without "sometimes?" Montaigne would have scored a #2 on the SATS. Thoreau and Joan Didion too!
The SAT essay test has subsequently shifted its focus to essays that analyze texts, but the same online advice lingers. Pre Scholar's five tips include: avoid using first person statements like "I" and "My" along with too much informality as in:
"I think that Sam is super persuasive in this article cause she's just so passionate. It made me feel kinda bad that I don't really monster it up in my everyday life."
Much better to be multisyllabic and formal as in::
"Lindsay's passionate defense of how drawing monsters allows us to laugh at our personal foibles' causing her audience to put themselves in her shoes and empathize with her position."
I was glad to see that 'we' had replaced 'one,' but wished they included an example like Ostriker's, to show the authoritative potential of "I think" when responding to literature.
Outside the classroom the pendulum is swinging back to reuniting the 'I' and 'Eye' in nonfiction. In 2015 Svetlana Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature for Voices of Chernobyl, a collection of "I" voices that were captured not in short journalistic quotes or authorial paraphrasing, but in long, raw, experiential accounts of how it felt to individuals:
"At the morgue…they couldn't get shoes on him because his feet had swelled up. They had to cut up the formal wear too because they couldn't get it on him. It was all—wounds. The last two days in the hospital I'd lift his arm and meanwhile the bone is shaking, just sort of dangling, the body had gone away from it."
It was the first Nobel Prize for nonfiction won as literature in half a century. Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, called Alexievich's work "a history of emotions- a history of the soul, if you wish." New Yorker book reviewer, Philip Gourevitch, wrote: "What she is doing, there's a lot of art in it….She has a voice that runs through her work that's much more than a sum of the voices she's collected."
Art. Voice. Soul. In Nonfiction. Would that SAT evaluators take note!
Nonfiction fusions of 'I' and 'Eye' regularly make the bestseller list with books such as Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which is steeped in research, interviewing, and an 'I' as investigative narrator. Edmund de Waal's The Hare with the Amber Eyes weaves family research into first-person narrative. All of Tracy Kidder's books from Soul of a New Machine on use a strong authorial presence, whether or not the 'I' is used overtly. And The New York Times Sunday Review regularly publishes Op Ed essays that tell personal stories to make a larger social or political point, as do TED talks, podcasts and blogs--all combining ideas and personal experience.
So why not in our academic classrooms? Some educators blame the rise of computerized essay evaluations that are not programmed to score, say, a pigeon anecdote. Others note teacher wariness of the inappropriate 'I'' as in:
"I think this poem stinks. It doesn't tell me anything. I don't like poetry, period."
But rather than ban the "I," why not force it to explain itself? What exactly is distasteful in this poem? How is the poetry you hate different from song lyrics you like? Let's insist on examples that defend the position. Let's require interviews with friends and experts to learn what they think on a topic and incorporate a few responses as direct quotations. And please, encourage a few "sometimes."
When I was conducting interviews in Germany for my book Good Neighbors, Bad Times, I relied on the 'I' to question, contradict, and be confused. Before the interview, I'd write what I expected to find; afterwards, what I did find, including reactions to people and places, the more sensory details, the better. I'd record every interview and transcribe it word for word without interpretation, and what amazed me was how little of my personal impressions matched the transcription. Did he say that? I totally forgot. It was the tension between affect (how the room struck me, who the person reminded me of) and transcribed fact that led me towards the truth of the experience. I've been using this technique ever since, all the while keeping in mind writer Leigh Hunt's caveat:
"There are two worlds: The world that we can measure with line and rule, and the world that we feel with our hearts and imagination. To be sensible of the truth of only one of these is to know truth by halves."
Let us remarry these two worlds in academic nonfiction so the authorial 'I' can work openly with the 'Eye' of observation and analysis. Writing quality and commitment would improve. Plagiarism would become more difficult because one person's 'I' is always unique. And because writers would feel their opinions did matter, they would learn to make their case with more writing power to engage both writer and reader.
Or so I believe.
Mimi Schwartz's creative nonfiction books include When History Is Personal (2018); the award-winning Good Neighbors, Bad Times- Echoes of My Father's Germany Village; Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed; and Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, co-authored with Sondra Perl. A version of this essay first appeared in the print edition of Writing on the Edge. For more information, go to http://www.mimischwartz.net
Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, London, John Murray, 1859, Chapter 1.
Ostriker, Alicia. Unpublished panel talk, "Remembering Adrienne Rich." Associated Writing Program:Seattle, 2014.
SparkNotes SAT Test Prep; October, 15, 2015.
Note: This website has been revised to accommodate changes in the SAT essay exam of 2016, now focused on literary criticism.
Alexievich, Svetlana. Voices of Chernobyl. Champaign: Dalkey Archive Press, 2015.
Schwartz, Mimi. Good Neighbors, Bad Times, Echoes of My Father's German Village. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Broadway Books, 2010.
De Waal, Edmund. The Hare With the Amber Eyes. London: Macmillan, 2010.
Gourevitch, Philip. "Nonfiction Wins a Nobel." The New Yorker 8 October, 2015
Hunt, Leigh. The Farmer's Wife. Vol. 36 (1933), p.72.