Advice

The Challenges of Writing 'I'

How do you become competent at first-person writing?

Joan M. Mas / Creative Commons

April 07, 2015

I used to cry at weddings. Mostly now I find myself cringing. I miss the days when a tottering officiant spouted a bunch of canned pablum and all the bride and groom had to do was say, "I do." Instead we get carefully planned ceremonies in which the couple have composed lengthy vows that can sound like an embarrassing litany of problems in the relationship.

Most people have little experience writing in the first person for public consumption. Often when they are faced with that harder-than-it-looks task it is for a high-stakes assignment — like getting hitched, applying for a job, writing an online dating profile, or putting together a tenure portfolio.

Of course in order to be successful at any of those things, you have to have the goods. You have to really want to marry that person; you’ve got to meet the basic qualifications listed in the job ad; you need to be prepared to go out on a blind date; and you must have published the types of things you’re supposed to have published. If you don’t have the right stuff it won’t matter how well you present yourself on the page. But talented and qualified people often fail to make a strong case for themselves, even when much hangs in the balance.

Part of doing well on any writing assignment has to do with understanding what’s required and then practicing. Trouble is, on some of those tasks, like writing wedding vows or preparing a tenure file, if you do a good job the first time you won’t get much practice.

In applying for jobs or grants, the basic writing mission rarely appears mysterious. You have to write a cover letter to a publisher, say, or a grant application, or a five-page personal statement that describes your research, teaching, and service. The task may seem simple, but there are so many ways it can go wrong.

The main problem is, of course, the usual — the gap between what we think we’re saying and what our readers take away from the page. Great essayists know when they write "I" they are creating a persona, one that is appropriate for the particular piece they’re composing. They know that if they sound too blustery, we will roll our eyes. If they don’t show us any faults, we will search harder to find them. If they’re pornographically confessional, we’ll be overcome with the ick factor and turn away. It’s a hard and risky business to write "I."

If you don’t believe me, try writing for a publication where anyone with access to a computer can tell you anonymously and vituperatively how stupid/ignorant/wrongheaded you are. You want to argue, "I never said that! Read what I wrote!" but that’s as useful as trying to comb your hair during a hurricane. It doesn’t matter. Either your prose wasn’t clear or your readers didn’t share the impression you were struggling to create. You thought you were being truthful about your accomplishments but you came off as boastful and vain.

What one reader loves another finds insufferable and narcissistic. After I read a memoir I bought another copy to give to a friend who struggled with many of the same issues the author wrote about. I was sure my friend would find the book enjoyable and helpful — sure that, like me, she would appreciate the prose and want to be BFFs with the author. Reader, she hated it. She hated the book — and its author — with a vehemence that shocked and surprised me.

The same thing happens to many other first-person writers. Sometimes people don’t even need to read their work to say hateful things about the authors. Think Sheryl Sandberg, Elizabeth Gilbert, Ann Patchett, Joyce Maynard, Ayelet Waldman, Adam Gopnik. I could go on and on.

Those writers have tight control over their prose and over the ideas they’re trying to express. They know how to craft themselves into three-dimensional, self-implicating characters. And still the reactions to them are varied — and often vicious. Because they write for publication and have made a conscious choice to open up about themselves and their lives, the haters gonna hate, hate, hate. All we can do is shake it off.

Those who are forced by circumstance into writing "I" often end up in worse shape. Many people first encounter the challenges of the personal essay with the college-application process. When I worked in an admissions office, I read thousands of personal essays, so I may suffer a little PTSD from the experience. My unscientific assessment is that 87 percent of them were painful to slog through. You can’t expect 17-year-olds to know how to create an interesting and engaging persona in 650 words. They think in order to be admitted they have to brag about all of their accomplishments, and they usually do it in ways that don’t endear them to us.

One hopes that when they get to college they will learn something about how to craft a compelling "I." One hopes in vain. The rare occasions when college students are asked to write personal essays tend to come in a first-year composition class, perhaps the hardest course in a university to teach and one that is often staffed by those least competent to lead it — overworked and undertrained graduate students.

Those same graduate students only recently struggled themselves to write statements of purpose when applying for Ph.D. programs. You don’t have to read a lot of those to realize that most applicants struggle with the genre.

In graduate school, where there’s so much content to master, so many research papers to write, and so much specialized language to memorize (and flaunt at parties), few mentors spend a lot of time talking about how to write a job letter that will reap an interview. Few faculty mentors even know how to do that task well. Serving on search committees can provide hundreds of negative examples, but in the rush and press of getting though the pile, how many faculty members stop to ask themselves about the qualities that makes one cover letter excellent and the rest agonizing to read?

How many tenure files do most assistant professors study before they have to put theirs together, and how many make the error of confusing correlation with causation? You know someone got tenure, but you don’t know if their personal statement helped or hindered.

How then do you become competent at first-person writing?

Think about the writers you’d most like to meet. What do they do in their prose that you can ape? How can you sound like the best, most competent, and appealing version of yourself when you’re writing sabbatical applications, grant proposals, reports? How do you know what works and what falls flat?

For this particular and peculiar writing task you really need good readers — ones who will tell you if the importance of your work isn’t clear, or if you’re coming off like a smug twit. You need readers who have been in the position of seeing lots of the type of statement you’re trying to write. And you need readers who care enough about you to tell you the truth, even if it’s hard to hear.

My best advice: Approach senior professors and ask for help. There’s no better way to get someone on your side than to ask for a favor. Most people will quail if you beg them to read your 500-page manuscript, but a two-page cover letter? Sure.

I tell my students that if they want me to read something to bring it to my office and sit with me as I go through it. They’ll get my immediate reaction — and it won’t take much of my time or theirs. The smart ones take notes. When I was applying for jobs, I brought a copy of my cover letter to a party and asked one of my professors to read it. He did so in the kitchen between beers and offered helpful advice.

It’s hard and scary to reveal yourself on the page. You tend to hear people’s critique as "I don’t like you," when what they are really saying is "I don’t like the approach." But ultimately it’s far better to hear that from someone who’s not in a position to sink your application.

Waiting until the last minute to finish a high-stakes writing assignment in an unfamiliar register is surely a mistake. But a bigger mistake is underestimating how difficult it can be to write "I."

Rachel Toor is an associate professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University’s writing program in Spokane. Her website is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com. Her first novel, On the Road to Find Out, was recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.