When my boys were little, they watched this cartoon called Bobby’s World . The show was about a four year old little boy named Bobby Generic, who had an overactive imagination. I’m pretty sure I liked the show more then either of my sons did. I loved how the mother used to say, “Don’t cha know.” But my absolute favorite memory is Bobby singing this song about why he loved his birthday. “It’s all about me, me, me,” he sang.
I think about that song a lot when I’m writing, especially when every sentence seems to start with “I”. It’s as if all I can see is me, me, me. And while it may be fun to engage in deep navel gazing, it makes for dull reading.
Virginia Wolfe wrote about this phenomenon in A Room of One’s Own.
But after reading a chapter or two a shadow seemed to lie across the page. It was a straight dark bar, shadow shaped something like the letter “I.” One began dodging this way and that to catch a glimpse of landscape behind it . . .. But—here I turned a page or two, looking for something or other—the worst of it is that in the shadow of the letter “I” all is a shapeless as mist.
Though this particular passage refers to Wolfe’s opinion of men and their over inflated sense of self, it is also a cautionary warning to all writers to remember the landscape behind them, and to make room in their writing for the reader. It’s sort of like selling your house. If the potential buyer sees too much of your family in the house, they can’t picture themselves living there.
When the page is covered with “I”, the writer is like a four year-old screaming, look at me, look at me. And consequently, the reader either loses interest or struggles to make sense of it all.
Wolfe illuminates the problem with self conscious writing in the phrase “ . . . the worst of it is that in the shadow of the letter “I” all is shapeless as mist.” Excessive use of “I” cast a haze over writing. It’s narcissistic and one-dimensional.
We write out of a desire for self expression, but if our writing becomes like Narcissus looking at his reflections in the pool of water, it loses it’s potential to effect the reader. The sense of self blocks the reader from his or her own insight and understanding of the work.