My last paper for my argumentative writing class is a personal argument. In class last week, my professor said to take ten minutes to sit and write about a time and our own experiences that formed our perspective of an issue. It could be any issue, big or small. It could be a very personal issue or it could be a general, broad one. At first, my mind drew a blank. I felt kind of silly for simply sitting at my desk while frowning and blinking when other people were writing rather quickly. Everything that popped into mind seemed so bland and not worthy of being dedicated a whole paper.
And then it hit me. I had the perfect topic to write about. So I scribbled the outline of events that made me come to a particular realization. The outline came out so easily. I could already envision the paper. I felt that exhilarating, geeky rush of “I know what I’m going to write – unlike many times before!” That was until the professor said, “Okay, now turn to the people around you and talk about your ideas.” Wait, what? I looked down at my paper and got a sinking feeling. What I’d scribbled was very personal to me. It didn’t feel like something I’d want to gloss over in two minutes simply to “get my idea out there to a small soundboard.” As much as I liked the workshop process (as I’ve said in a previous post from some long time ago), this time I wanted to just not do it. But I did it anyway. I gave the girls beside me the little details of what I’d written down and summarized them in the most incoherent, bumbling way. How am I supposed to write something when I can’t even bear to have it being read by more than just one person?
This is one of my biggest problems with writing. I am perfectly fine with writing an academic paper (in the sense of it being a “go research, learn something, and make an argument” type of paper). They’re pretty fun to write when I feel up for putting myself in one spot for hours at a time just reading over sources and then bouncing around ideas for the next few days. I also like narratives. I love writing needlessly elaborate scenes and slipping dialogues in between actions and descriptions. The problem, though, is that narratives get too sticky when they’re personal.
When I tried drafting my paper, I got as far as one page until it felt just too overwhelming to continue. I went through the usual motions – type, delete, type, hit “justify”, double space, put a page number – and then I just stopped typing. When I reread the page I’d finished, I began wondering if I even wanted to continue writing on the same topic because it was dredging up less than pleasant memories. I was running the risk of venting instead of writing. But I also knew that this paper wasn’t only going to be therapeutic, but it would also help me say what I’ve been wanting to say for a long time.
If I could write this paper and turn it in without letting another person read it (by whom I mean any of my classmates who would, inevitably, skim through the paper and give me their first impressions of it in class), I would do it. But I knew I couldn’t get away with that. Last semester, I wrote about the ups and downs of living my life juggling long-distance relationships spanning four continents and multiple time zones. Having the paper being discussed in a classroom of twenty people for a whole hour was not easy. I appreciated all the technical and stylistic questions and suggestions brought up. But the emotional aspect was the hardest to deal with – having to detach myself from the issue to see my paper as just a paper was difficult. Writing the paper was like riding an emotional roller coaster which made sharp, screeching stops at sadness, anger, and longing – how could I detach myself?
All this makes me wonder, when does personal become too personal? The vulnerability that comes with writing narratives scares me. Has anyone ever felt this way before? Also, if you could write anonymously (as your work does not bear your name or picture or anything of the like – and you are completely free of being assigned any preconceived biases and prejudices by anyone from your closest friends to complete strangers who read your work), do you think you would write differently? How might you express yourself differently?