Am “I” Writing This?

A Lonely Tree

When writing articles, especially ones that dip into philosophical muck or are intended to reach a literary community, can “I” exist? Or is using that pronoun to violate the codes of writing that differentiate between good and bad, or academic and personal? School teaches suppression of the “I”, but school’s been wrong before, and history exposes rules as malleable. So where’s the line? What value can “I” provide, and what credibility can it erode?

Writing from the pits of existential philosophy, where each idea is one actively assaulting my notions of self, universe, and their elusive interplay, I struggle at the beginning of every written piece to repress the “I” desiring to relate its experience. I do this out of fear. Scores of articles found on the internet employ the “I” structure, individuals relating their opinions, experiences, and otherwise dangerously idiosyncratic messages. It’s like when college students start blogs to chronicle their study-abroad trips; an awesome thing to do, but few will be interested beyond friends and family. I don’t want to be a writer speaking only to my mother, so I avoid the “I” in favor of an objective, general tense to mitigate the risk of people rolling their eyes at what “I” feel.

Then I read E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed (best book I’ve ever read), and finally found a rationale that not only allows for the “I”, but necessitates it if we’re going to talk about any of life’s big questions.

“The main concern of existentialism, it has been noted, is that experience has to be admitted as evidence, which implies that without experience, there is no evidence. That opposites are transcended when ‘higher forces’ — like love and compassion — intervene is not a matter to be argued in terms of logic: it has to be experienced in one’s actual existence (hence: existential-ism).”

— (E.F. Schumacher, p. 126)

Only subjective experience can penetrate existentialism’s fog. To suppress the “I” in existential writing is to withhold its value. Of course, it also follows that nothing of existential value can be captured in words and spread across the internet, and yet, we, or I, do it anyway as a byproduct of my own self-enquiry process. If I didn’t write things down, or explore ideas by writing about them just to see what spills out onto the page, they’d remain out of reach, in that flurry of thoughts cycling in and out of focus quicker than we can ponder them.

David Foster Wallace captures this beautifully:

“This is another paradox, that many of the most important impressions and thoughts in a person’s life are ones that flash through your head so fast that fast isn’t even the right word, they seem totally different from or outside of the regular sequential clock time we all live by…and yet we all seem to go around trying to use English…when in fact deep down everybody knows it’s a charade…What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines…Words and chronological time create all these total misunderstandings of what’s really going on at the most basic level. And yet at the same time English is all we have to try and understand it and try to form anything larger or more meaningful and true with anybody else, which is yet another paradox.”

— DFW, “Oblivion”, Good Old Neon, p. 151

So I did write this, I am writing this, and by doing so, what was intended to be an intro for an entirely different topic grew into a fleshed-out idea of its own. Writing from the subjective might not make your piece a stronger literary feat, and plenty of snobs like myself may roll their eyes, but this pales in comparison to the potential gains you’ll find in connecting with your own experience — furthering your own involution.

We cannot answer these questions of infinite scope for others anyway, only for ourselves. So roping ourselves off from ourselves seems to strand us in limbo, trying to reason our way towards something that lies beyond reason.

If this sounds like terrible advice, it probably is. It’s not meant to be advice, but a thin cloak for my rummaging about the interconnected, ineffable flashes going on inside. As DFW tells us, it’s the “endless inbent fractals of connection and symphonies of different voices, the infinities you can never show another soul”, that’s the good stuff.

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