Musings of the University of Dundee MLitt Publishing Writing students

Thoughts on Writing

The Alienated ‘I’

Picture this; me, 12 (or maybe 13), in an English class. I had just received back my first essay on the play Educating Rita. I was excited. I loved books, always had. I couldn’t believe there was a whole subject dedicated to the art of writing. I was shocked that I would be allowed to dig deep within a word and carve out its true meaning.

Yet, I was wrong. There was no ‘I’ in any words’ true meaning.

My essay was slapped down on my desk with a low score scrawled in red ink. I stared at it. I kept starring. I starred long enough for it to be an issue and for my classmate to ask if I was okay.

‘Why?’ was the first question. I thought I understood the play quite well. Of course, I wasn’t expecting the full five golden stars, fireworks, and a tiara placed on top of my pre-pubescent head. But, this was not it, at all.

This was the first time I met the alienated ‘I’ in academia. Under no circumstances were we to ever write an essay where our own voice intrudes the text. We, as the writers, were to be removed from the process. We were simple observers and explainers — but remember, there was never to be an ‘I’ in the perceiving.

Throughout my high school education, this continued. Even in the rare chance that we were allowed to write a creative piece, the only ‘I’ was to be one of fiction (unless writing a personal essay). If you were to even attempt isolating that vowel on its own in a discursive essay, you would be sent off the pits of the SQA guidelines to remind yourself of this constant rule.

However, at university everything changed. The ‘I’ was suddenly no longer the heinous creature that burned any teachers fingers the minute they came across it. It was a warm friend. For the first time, in a long time, we were told to welcome the ‘I’. It was your findings, your research, why wouldn’t you own it?

I have always had an issue with the way we teach English literature in our schools. It all feels too formal, too boring. We are given the same layout and the same patterns to follow; point, explain, quote, explain, conclude, repeat. Whilst I understand that this is how we first learn to analyse and write the English essay, when you try to veer off and provide a little bit of interest you are pushed back in line. This is the way things have always been done, so why change?

It is also why I never have, and never will, understand English exams. Why do we focus on the idea that you should never leave an essay to the last minute but you are suddenly expected to write one in the space of an hour? For a group of people studying the language, we tend to come off lost in our own meanings.

I could even talk about the severe lack of creative opportunities throughout my high school experience in English, but I fear I would talk non-stop (because we all know being a writer is a ridiculous dream for a child…right?)

So, we return to the ‘I’, the friend that has comforted us since birth. The one true companion to our ideas of ‘self’. It stands there, all alone. Yet, strong in its presence.

I have opened my arms back up to my own personal ‘I’, have you?

1 Comment

  1. Gail Low

    It’s a very tricky thing, this “I” – completely personal, expressive, sometimes full of passion, but like Denise Riley says in “Words of Selves” also impersonal, a grammatical portal; if not empty certainly a “sign” rather than a fully promised self.