Oscar Wilde wrote, “The highest as the low- est form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.” Over the last four years at Yale — and the last year and a half of writ- ing for the News — I have found his statement to be truer than I previously imagined. Auto- biography — learning how to write about yourself — is woven into many parts of the Yale experience, and has become an integral part of mine.
Every semester, I speak to at least one student in the Writing Center (where I have loved working during my time at Yale) who asks me what superficially appears to be a simple question: Am I allowed to use the word “I” in my paper? Most ask this question with a vaguely tortured expression on their face — the legacy of being browbeaten by high school teachers who told them that “I” was to be avoided at all costs. When I smile and tell them that they’re allowed to use the word, depending on their professor’s expectations and the discipline that the paper is intended for, they beam.
Getting to write “I” becomes a form of empowerment: It’s a rite of passage, a sign that your opinions matter enough to be read on their own terms. For me, writing for the News has been a similarly empowering experience — one that has been fundamentally related to this question of what it means to use (and be) “I.”
Yale professors in the humanities are fond of reminding students that writing is an extension of thinking: The clearer the writing, the more crystalline the thoughts behind the prose. Learning how to write “I” in academic writing becomes an act of self-acknowledgment: You are no longer able to hide behind vague generalities and the arguments formulated by others. You are irrevocably and intimately responsible for everything that you write, and therefore believe.
At the same time, penning “I” is a tool of exploration, a trial on the page to test whether you genuinely believe something you say (or write) is true. We engage in imaginary dialogues — an “I,” a “you,” an “us” — that enact arguments and counterarguments, building larger communities of readers and writers who are implicated in what we say and how we say it. From the safe haven of the page, it is possible to refine and articulate beliefs, hopes, prejudices, expectations, to admit to what has been hidden and to acknowledge what came before. The “I” becomes a vehicle for confession, for communion, connection, as well as for alienation, isolation, dissent.
Yale is both about the creation of this “I,” an articulate self on the page, as well as the effacement of it, the loss of self in the larger community of peers and scholars, past and present. We are given the opportunity to set ourselves apart by writing and also to lose ourselves within the context of an argument or a paper. Always, writing is a tool — perhaps the ultimate tool — for distinguishing the self from the herd and for joining it.
Over the last year and a half, I have thought continually about what it means to be an “I” for a campus newspaper with a digital reach that extends far beyond its printed pages. I’ve received hilarious emails from people who believe that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays; been excerpted on other people’s blogs (often without my name attached to my writing) and had people come up to me on the street to ask more about my experience and to share their own. More so than the continual conversation than my colleague and friend Nathaniel Zelinsky ’13 describes, what I have seen and experienced has been a series of people using the texts they read and write as catalysts for self-exploration. Indeed, each of my columns (and the columns of other opinion writers) has been a means of self-expression and exploration. Our “I’s” are at once individual and collective: We teach and speak to each other.
Of course, Oscar Wilde is right: Bad autobiographical writing is worse than most other forms of writing. Who doesn’t love to hate trashy memoirs, terrible blogs and those self-help books that make everyone feel a welcome dose of schadenfreude? But good autobiography — like Wilde’s many essays of self-reflection — lives forever.
Getting to be an “I” on this page has been one of the greatest gifts my time at Yale has afforded — and getting to learn about the “I’s” of readers has been another great blessing. We are all given a rare opportunity for self-invention during our four years at Yale, but I am looking forward to discovering a new “I” next year and in all the years after.
Zoe Mercer-Golden is a senior in Davenport College. This is her last column for the News. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .