“I.” The ninth letter of the alphabet. Though it’s just a single letter— composed, as Sylvia Plath once observed, of “three reassuring strokes”— “I” encompasses the entirety of the human ego. “I” represents the lens through which we see the world, the sum total of all we’ve seen and thought and felt. By definition, no two “I’s” are exactly alike (after all, have there ever been two identical individuals in the history of the world?). Thus, Brenda Ueland reassured us, “if you speak from yourself, you cannot help being original.”
Yet most of us resist speaking sincerely from ourselves because we believe that everything we have to say is stupid, uninteresting, and unoriginal. This distaste for “I” begins in our early years in grade school. “Never use ‘I’!” our English teachers scribbled disapprovingly in our notebooks. Because we were forbidden from using the 1st person, we came to believe “I” was too unscholarly, too unserious, too informal. Essays should be about the causes of WWII, the symbolism of Fitzgerald’s green light, the theme of marriage in the Victorian novel— not the catastrophes of our dating life or the loss of our father.
Sadly, most of us think our stories aren’t worth telling unless they’re larger than life, out-of-the-ordinary. No one, we convince ourselves, wants to hear what we have to say— we’re “boring”! After all, who wants to read about an everyman mechanic from New Jersey when they could read an adventure tale about a big game hunter on safari or an epic romance about a fallen Southern belle? Compared to novels and movies on the silver screen, our commonplace lives feel unforgivably yawns-worthy.
But to be writers, we must honor— rather than discount— our own experiences. Day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, great writers describe the quality of their consciousness. Rather than disregard their particular lives, they’re always alert to the potential for art in their experiences: an overheard bit of conversation at a cafe might provide material for a novel’s central conflict, a squabble with a lover might supply dialogue for a movie script.
But the question remains: why write from “I”? who cares about our particular experiences?
In her 1938 classic If You Want to Write, Brenda Ueland argues we should write from “I” because the particular is the only pathway to the universal. Take Sylvia Plath as an example. As one of the founding poets of the confessional movement, Plath pioneered the idea of writing from “I.” By writing truthfully about her experiences as a woman, especially in “The Applicant,” her scathing satire of marriage, and The Bell Jar, her harrowing account of mental illness, Plath was able to resonate with a generation of Feminine Mystique-era feminists. Like Plath, a Beaver-to-Cleaver era housewife who suffered at the hands of her sexist society, 1960s women began to feel dissatisfied with their roles as wives and mothers. The prescient poet detected these seismic shifts in the culture. It is only because Plath dared to express the particular that she was able to glimpse the condition of women everywhere.
So when you write, cherish your one-of-a-kind life and remember the wise words of Ms. Ueland: “The more you wish to describe a Universal, the more minutely and truthfully you must describe a Particular.”