“I think every story is different. I say this because…”

Students tell me they write “I think” to let the reader know they are not so egotistical as to equate their opinions with fact. Perhaps that’s their intention. But to the reader, that “I think” sounds less like modesty and more like uncertainty, especially to the reader who understands that what people write down is most often what they think and therefore doesn’t expect to see the writer point that out.

Following “I think [whatever]” with “I say this because” begins to seem like wheel-spinning while the writer actually does try to think. There are just too many words there.

I do like the fact that my student thinks every story is different. We spend time in class looking at stories (or poems) that share settings, or themes, or subjects, and discussing the details that make them different; after all, I say, all of literature can be boiled down to some three basic story lines; there must be some reason writers keep writing more. So here, my student is telling me that she has taken into her own set of thoughts the proposition that the differences we’ve been looking at from time to time all semester actually exist. This is gratifying. At exam time, the professor is grateful to see anything familiar show up on the test.

You know I’ve been teasing you with the ending of the second sentence. All right; here’s the entire utterance:

“I think every story is different. I say this because no story is the same.”

That’s a damned fine reason to say it.

Actually, “no story is the same” is a disconcerting thought. Had my student gone on to discuss the relationship between the reader and the story, it might have led to a thoughtful paragraph or two. After all, every reader has experienced the phenomenon of rereading a favorite book after some time has elapsed and finding that the book has changed: the story has wider or deeper implications; the “hero” seems to have acquired flaws; something funny now seems sad (or vice versa); more experience on the part of the reader has revealed a whole new meaning in a phrase, or reference, or scene. Those of us who like to talk about books with friends also know that no story is the same to all readers. Her first sentence, then, would come to mean that every story is different from itself at every reading, or to every reader.

But alas, my student wasn’t taking that philosophical, or reader-response, road. She was about to discuss three stories (as the essay question demanded) that were different from each other. She meant, then, “No two stories are the same,” or maybe “no three stories are the same.” But she has written that no one story is the same, and that must give one pause, although for her it was evidently what enabled her to move forward.

Long ago a professor of mine noted on a paper that I “spent too much time in throat-clearing.” I think this is a good way of describing those first sentences, or transitional sentences, where the writer can be seen to avoid committing herself to a point while she tries to figure out what the point actually is going to be, or gets ready to force a concept into actual words. I make this comment to my own students. (I would also allude to Art Carney as Ed Norton on The Honeymooners and the way he would repeatedly shoot his cuffs and shake his fingers in preparation for signing his name to things—master of suspense!—but I know this cultural reference will not resonate with today’s students.)

What my student was doing here was throat-clearing, or cuff-shooting, not yet saying anything. What she produced is yet again one of those masterpieces of circular (appropriately, for wheel-spinning) or self-defining statement that leaves the professor sighing, in wonder and despair, “True. True.”

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

11 responses to ““I think every story is different. I say this because…”

  • bumblepuppies

    It’s great to see you back.

    • RAB

      Ah, thanks! Very stressful semester. Fortunately, my students did NOT fail to provide me with material to last awhile! Good to hear from you.

  • Susan P

    Ditto.

    Exam time is always stressful for professors and students. She must have been really nervous.

    🙂

  • KokkieH

    I suddenly realise I use “I think…” and “I say this because…” with frightful regularity on my blog. It’s one of those things you don’t even realise you’re doing until someone points it out, but luckily it’s easy to eliminate if you take the trouble to edit that first draft.

    Also glad to see you back.

    • RAB

      I do it too, at least in speech. I am a TYRANT about it, though, with my writing students. This student, being a literature student, had escaped the tyranny. Actually, in her case I do have to be grateful, because when I got to the second sentence I had a nice little laugh….

  • solberg73

    Another delightful autopsy this. I simply love your dissection of well-meaning yet essentially meaningless prose.
    The Art Carney reference resonated clearly with at least this reader.
    In this case , had the writer, after the elongated build-up, actually made a 5 dollar point the padding might have been more forgivable.
    And I’m just dying to re-read all the sci-fi novels from the 1956 library shelf which I spared no effort at the time to peruse. Seriously with my somewhat failing memory, I can now read the same book twice or thrice, each time anew, (and indeed have done so embarrassingly.
    Thanks for continuing to bless us with insights. Each day without a new post here causes a little kitten somewhere to cry in her sleep, or worse.

    • RAB

      Thanks for your delicious comment! But yes. I have formally read David Copperfield at three times: once in high school (on my own), once in graduate school (in a course), and once (multiple times) as a professor teaching it in a summer-prep program and a basic first-year reading/writing course. I was amazed, at each return, at how much the novel had changed—how important the themes that suddenly emerged, how compelling some of the minor characters, how arresting the descriptions…and how the well-constructed and suspenseful plot receded into the background of my attention. I have also indulged in repeatedly re-reading all the Harriet Vane books in Dorothy L. Sayers’ repertoire, just to rediscover the many subtle joys along the way in Lord Peter Wimsey’s delicate courtship and Harriet’s efforts to deal intellectually with her emotions. And many’s the spring that I’ve decided The Secret Garden needed another read. Good books change with us, and the more interesting we become, the more we find in them.

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    “At exam time, the professor is grateful to see anything familiar show up on the test.”
    Oh, so glad you are back. (glad the summer is here, too)
    Students never consider teachers have graded a few papers in the past – and recognize the use of certain phrases (“I think”…”I say this because”) are so convenient not because they say anything, but that they take up space (and pretend to be actual significant writing)
    Some have had great HS teachers that only read the first and last paragraphs of papers (Kids started just writing the same word or phrase over and over again – and still got A’s and “good jobs.” Really. I some kids spilled it to me – tipped off the teacher – but she didn’t really care) So by the time kids get to you, they’ve learned to game the system and conserve energy for more important games?
    I banned “I think”, “I say this because” for writing students, too. (You are writing it. The reader knows you think this. DUH. Put it in a draft to get you started, but scratch it out in the final form…Of course they did rough drafts or brief outlines back then…) One average student football player smugly came back years later and said that 8th grade class (I did a short tour of duty a few years there) was the only place someone actually taught how to write. Apparently it was sufficient to get his HS and college instructors to wave his papers in front of the class and say “Now this is how you should be writing.” He was happy, I was happy. “Average” is better sometimes?
    Hope to see you around!

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