Saturday, October 29, 2011

Personal Matters


I spend my days working with individual writers on papers for their college classes. For the most part, these papers are research-based analysis of topics within the disciplines of sociology, medicine, and psychology. I spend time reading through the essays, marking them up, correcting grammar and format, and making suggestions on how to bring out the strengths and minimize the weaknesses in the writer’s work. I have, however, learned to go easy on one aspect I always find missing from scientific research and analysis: the first person pronoun “I.” Most teachers do not allow the use of “I.” “You must be objective,” they tell the students. “Only the facts and your analysis.”

Some of the papers this semester focused on the film, Mysterious Skin (2004), a rather intense and graphic depiction of child sexual abuse and its effects on the lives of two boys. Many of the students found the film disturbing on many levels, and a few struggled to even write about it with any kind of depth or discussion, subconsciously trying to avoid confronting the horrific acts depicted in the film. The startling realization I came to when speaking with each writer is that many of them had experienced or witnessed some kind of abusive situation, either sexual, physical, or verbal, and the movie served to dredge up those memories and refresh the trauma.

When it came to writing an analysis, the students were asked to take on the case of the two leads and discuss how they would approach the situation as social workers. In their essays, the students were to write in third person—“a therapist should…”—and avoid reacting on a purely visceral, personal level. To show anger or any emotional reaction could make the patient shut down, or feel as if some kind of judgment was being rendered.

But here, I have a problem. I understand the need for an academic approach, an objective scientific stance when observing a case. However, as a writer, this goes against the grain. The personal is always important, even when it is subconscious.

A journalistic essay requires the who, what, where, when why, and how, the solid lead, the salient facts, the descriptive details. In true third person objective journalism, personal feelings about the events must be left out. Yet, is this practically possible? A writer can choose which facts to emphasize, which, in a way, can evoke emotions in the reader. Through an objective, carefully organized telling of the facts, the journalist can subtly influence the effect on the reader of the writing.

Readers of journalism are seeing the story through the writer’s eyes. It is the world “as seen by,” and even reaction to a film clip of a news event can be influenced by the editing of the tape. Often, journalists will say, “I want to be a fly on the wall, a neutral observer of the story.” By his very presence in the space, the journalist alters the scene.

Writing is a personal act. Even a “just-the-facts” rendering has strands of the personal buried in it, and the personal matters. If the writer removes herself from the page, if the writing is merely an academic exercise, readers will turn away. So, how does one bring in the personal, and how much “personal response” should be allowed onto the page before objectivity is corrupted?

Writers are entitled to an opinion if they have done the homework—read the text in question, read articles and research about the subject, witnessed the event, and/or thought about it and considered all points of view. Too many teachers tell students, “You have no right to an opinion. You need to listen to me because I am the expert, and you are only a”—insert here: child, amateur, etc.—and thus begins the “expert lecture” where students tune out and check their Facebook page while the sage on the stage drones on and on.

Good writers find a way to write from the personal to the world. A good personal essayist resonates with readers. The writing strikes a chord. A narcissist resonates only with himself. He whines and complains, but in the end, doesn’t give a shit about the rest of the world. He’s only interested in airing his grievances and showing how smart he is.

Joan Didion, one of my writing heroes, was taught that she was the least important person in the room, and she believes this role serves her well in her job as a journalist. It is okay to be unobtrusive, but a writer is always present. The writer’s eyes see the world for us. She is the witness. That is the success of the writing—the reader feels the experience as if he were present. That’s not narcissism; that’s good writing. Didion also insists that she writes to find out what she thinks. Writing is always about self-discovery. The additional obligation is to bend that revelation so that readers discover something as well. Good writing must resonate. That, in the end, is the only criteria that matters.

We are all on a journey—separate and together—and that journey has a finite end. We are singular in the way we live as part of the plurality. It is a paradox. Therefore, writing is not about the “me” or the “other.” It is the singular “I” or “eye.”

For example, the student writing about theories of hospice care for her nursing course should not avoid the experiences she had while interning as a hospice nurse. This could make for a fascinating essay as well. How can she bring in the “I,” (eye) to her research essay? It will take a bit of slight of hand, and a clever disguise, but her direct experiences with the theories in practice are too valuable to leave out. So, the writer must work to bring some of what she saw into the essay without compromising the third person objective research.

In the end, writing in a vacuum without the “I” (eye) is pounding sand. It is mental masturbation, the ultimate narcissism. It’s showing off. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? Leaving out the “I” can actually be narcissistic. But it is true. That kind of writing is stillborn, vapid, mere facts without context. Like a masturbatory experience, it has a beginning, middle and climax, but the writer still wakes up alone, bereft of the communal experience of being alive. In the end, it is the personal that fosters the connections to the readers. Good writing is the solitary tone that is universal, the sacred sound that resonates with all existence. In the end, it is the personal that matters most.

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