Like many new bloggers, I was consumed with anxiety when I posted my first, tentative essays on WordPress. “Will people like them?”, I wondered. “Will anyone take time to read them?” “How will I ever know?”
As time passed and I grew more assured, I began to think less about others’ response to my words and more about the writing itself. Georgia O’Keefe once reflected on a book of photographs and text published to mark her 90th birthday by saying, “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest”. Reading her words, I felt an immediate kinship. Over the months, I’d begun to make similar comments when discussing my own work. “This is how I understand things.” ” This is the way I experience the world.” ” This is what I would like you to see.”
To be frank, that’s a lot of “I”. At one time, it would have made me uncomfortable to say such things. During my formative years, “I” was a bad word. No one ever said so explicitly, but if any of us began to use it just a little too often, we knew we needed to stop. “I” was a selfish word. “I” was self-centered, vain and egotistical, prideful, frivolous and perhaps even a little smart-alecky, like the inevitable kid in the back of the classroom who loved to wave his arms and yell, “Teacher! Teacher! I know! I know!” It was impossible to stop using “I”, of course, but we weren’t supposed to celebrate its necesssity.
Life being what it is, someone was bound to challenge that view of things. My challenge appeared in the form of a rumpled and utterly distracted professor who bore a vague resemblance to Quentin Compson. Tie pulled loosely to one side, occasionally missing a button, shedding files and paper like autumn trees, he was a natural actor whose classes could be pure theatre. He didn’t precisely teach but rolled through our lives like a force of nature, tacking signs above his desk that proclaimed Creato, Ergo Sum and asking questions like, “If you had to wear a scarlet letter, which one would it be?” His lectures were filled with a mix of literary classics, myth and religious texts. We got Genesis, Gilgamesh and the Gospels filtered through Melville, Eliot, Faulkner and Greene.
My first day in his classroom, he began by insisting each of us recite twenty-five sentences beginning with the word “I”. He didn’t care about content. “I hate carrots” was as acceptable as “I love my mother”. We did it every day. Once we’d become accustomed to the routine, he increased the difficulty by pairing “I” with some interesting companions: “I hope… I think… I wish… I hate…” Through it all, we began to stretch and gain a new awareness of self, not to mention an understanding of our vision of the world and what we found of value there.
His more specific point for us as writers and communicators was made the day he glared at us over his glasses and said, “Good writing depends on the ability to say ‘I'”. Taking advantage of our startled attention, he added, “Being willing to say “I” means being willing to take responsibility for your vision, your words and your life.” For him, the person able to say “I” without apology or arrogance was a person worth listening to. Responsive and responsible, secure, whole and with a deep commitment to truth, that person alone would have the confidence to say, “Listen to my words, and judge them for yourself.”
He hated nothing more than those who refused to claim their words. A retreat into false objectivity, so acceptable in academia, drove him crazy. It was an unfortunate student who used any of the phrases: One would think… There are those who… It has been suggested that… Critics say… Using those or similar phrases in writing or speech would land him in front of you, breathing heavily and saying, “Your words are beautiful. Your words are elegant. But are they true? What about you? What do you think?”
During those confrontations, our pretentious phrases stood revealed for what they were – weasel words, cowardice dressed up as ambiguity, escape hatches for people unwilling to stand for their convictions. Cowardice makes it difficult for an artist to discover and defend his or her vision, and our fire-breathing professor knew that. One of my favorite O’Keefe quotations comes from a catalogue for a 1939 exhibition. Feisty and straightforward as always, she says ” “I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see – and I don’t.” My professor called such statements, “Essence of I”, and Georgia O’Keefe was its embodiment.
In a culture given to worship of mediocrity and homogenization, where skill, intelligence, sensitivity and vision too often are dismissed as irrelevant or uninteresting and clear statements of personal value are confused with egoism on a regular basis, the ability to speak a clear and coherent “I” can enliven, challenge, entertain and cajole as surely as my beloved professor. Today, in a bit of delicious irony, his passion for the confident “I” has born fruit in at least this way: one of my first esssays, “I Believe in Asking, ‘How Can I?'” is being broadcast on Houston’s NPR station as part of the This I Believe series.
Once again, that’s a lot of “I”s. But on this day, at least, the “I”s have it.