A Necessary Evolution of Writing: An Appeal to the High School English Teacher
I have never considered myself to be a personable narrator, and before this semester, have never been encouraged to be one. My reluctance to write in the first person narrative stems from my own experience as a reader who has been berated and patronized by authors who are unable, or unwilling, to place themselves at my level of comprehension, and had been reinforced by my high school teachers who insisted that I write in the traditional third person narrative—my mother being one of them, might I add. As a result, I’ve developed into a writer who is hard pressed to find literary merit to a thesis based solely in opinion, let alone my own. However, throughout the semester of “Ecological Imaginings”, I have realized that there was a need for my writing to evolve, and I therefore made an effort to rediscover my personal voice in my writing. After analyzing the works of authors such as Terry Tempest Williams and those of my classmates, I’ve begun to be able to piece together the formula imperative to the successful implementation of the first person narrative, which I believe is imperative in the development of a writer who is able to write at the collegiate level. Although most college essays will generally be written in the third person narrative, teaching students to locate their own voice at the high school level sets a foundation of understanding that will translate to college. While I took away a great deal of knowledge regarding the ecological workings of the world, I find that my most prodigious discovery was learning to locate myself within my own writing. After reading texts of authors we’ve studied in Ecological Imaginings throughout the semester, I’ve come to appreciate the power of the first person narrative that is intimate with the reader, and is supported by outside sources.
In high school, I was taught to distance myself from my reader as much as possible, providing evidence as a sound barrier between the two of us. Despite this, reading over the collection of my essays, I’ve noticed that I have written many of them on the topic of intimacy—although there seems to be a lack of it between my reader and me. For me, there is something too vulnerable about releasing my personal opinions as public property; sometimes this reluctance arises due to the fear of being judged by my audience, or with my own insecurity regarding the significance of my ideas, which was ingrained in me in my high school English classes. That being said, I have realized that an emotional detachment from my subject is not necessarily the most effective approach; some of the most powerful essays that I’ve written have allowed for some intimacy between the author and reader. This is usually realized through an author’s humility which allows the reader to connect with her ideas at a comprehensible and realistic level. In her essay collection, An Unspoken Hunger, Terry Tempest Williams reminisces about how her grandmother’s hobby of shell collection and study has become her own. “Each shell is…an architecture of the soul. I can hold [one] to my ear and hear not only the ocean’s voice, but the whisperings of my beloved teacher”. (15) Williams creates an emotional, human experience that is easily feasible to the reader. That Williams, who is teaching me, has similarly been taught by another unites my position and hers; it makes us intimate. My high school English teachers were hesitant to encourage this type of intimacy between the reader and author, at risk of offending the reader. I believe this can be remedied through the use of outside sources.
One of the warnings my high school English teachers gave me was that the first person narrative suggests a biased opinion—while this in an old rule, it’s not always true. A thesis with a personal voice can become a powerful statement when backed up by outside sources, particularly if those sources are well known. In other words, standing alone my ideas may have little value to my reader, but when they are supported by other sources, they accumulate more merit. Many of Williams’ essays, for instance, are not only grounded in personal experience, but are also fortified by other authors and artists. In “Cahoots with Coyote”, for example, Williams emphasizes the importance of getting back to nature through sketching the biography of a well-known painter, Georgia O’Keefe. Williams’ method of persuasion is effective; she proposes an opinion that is reinforced by O’Keefe’s nature paintings. Under these conditions, a reasonable reader still has room to argue with Williams’ ideas, but will find it difficult to completely dismiss her propositions because they have been backed up by other sources, which was, in essence, the cause of my high school English teachers’ hesitation to encourage writing in the first person narrative.
I believe that there is a need to reevaluate the rules that the standard high school English teacher is encouraging in literature students. All throughout secondary school, I’ve been warned to veer away from using my personal voice as evidence to support my theses; I was never taught exceptions or parameters that may have encouraged me to at least attempt writing in the first person narrative under certain guidelines. However, throughout the semester, I’ve learned that personal experience can be as persuasive and fact based as the traditional third person narrative that is common in essay writing. Now, the question that remains to be addresses is how our high schools can re-model the way they teach literature in the high school setting—more specifically, a new approach to the writing in the first person. While the transition to writing in the first person narrative has been an uncomfortable one, it has allowed me explore my writing in a surprisingly more critical way, which will benefit me throughout my four years as a student at Bryn Mawr College.
Thoreau, Henry David, and John Wawrzonek. Walking. Berkeley, CA: Nature, 1993. Print.
Williams, Terry Tempest. An Unspoken Hunger. New York, NY: Vintage, 1994. Print.