I remember it vividly. I was standing behind a grad school classmate in front of the writing teacher’s table after class got out. Said classmate was one of my roommates. The particular teacher, already mysterious with his white hair and black eyebrows and his moody countenance, uttered the following words: “There are two Is.”
My roommate stared at him. I looked back and forth between them, squinting. “Wait. What? Did you just say there are two Is?”
“Yes,” he said. He had a smirk at the corners of his lips, a whimsical little gleam in his eyes. Kind of like Santa Claus when he tells you he knows when you’ve been naughty. “That’s not the same I there as here.” He pointed to the pages in front of him.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Those are two different Is.” He said this as if it was rife with meaning. Which I suppose it was. But it sure as hell explained nothing to me.
This is the approach of some literary writers to the conundrums of teaching certain aspects of theory. In hindsight, i see it as how they keep themselves in work. They could explain such mysteries clearly. The trouble is, they seem to find some value in not doing so.
There are probably hundreds of these little bits of knowledge. In a way, you don’t want them all to be revealed. It’s nice to have some zen, mysterious quality about writing that you can’t explain. After all, if you could walk down a length of rice paper and leave no trace, what would be the point of getting any better? You’d already by Kwai Chang Kane.
It was much later when I understood the mystery of the two Is. It wasn’t nearly as impenetrable as I would have thought from the way it was presented. I’ll tell you what it is in a second, but first I want to tell you what I really learned from this incident. Here it is: I don’t want to be that kind of writing teacher. I want to cut to the easiest, most readily grasped explanation of a concept.This may require reframing it several times and over a period of time. Not everyone understands things the same way. It may not immediately sink in. Learning one thing may be dependent on learning several other things first. But I refuse to be the kind of teacher who makes something more mysterious or academic than it actually is. My goal as an editor and writing teacher is to help people understand concepts and apply them.There you have it. The short version of my writing pedagogy.
Now on to the two Is.
In a first person narrative, two time periods are going on, though only one is immediately visible most of the time. The narrator is the person telling you the story. The story is set at some point in the past (with rare exception.) So let’s say we’re sitting here and I’m telling you a story about something that happened to me when I was twelve. My twelve year old self was much more naive than I am. So some of the things I could tell you would come from that point of view. Yet you’d know that I, the one sitting in front of you, found it funny, because I am not that twelve year old any more. So when I say, “I went to the window and looked out” there are two Is. The one telling you the story and the one the story was happening to.
You may ask why this matters. Now that’s a longer story. And I have to get to work.