gen·er·al·i·ty (jenəˈralitē), n. [pl. GENERALITIES (-tiz)], [Fr. généralités; LL. generalitas < L. generalis], 1. the condition or quality of being general, or applicable to all 2. a general, or nonspecific statement, expression, idea, principle, etc.: as, he spoke in generalities 3. The bulk; main body; majority; mass.
I cannot tell you how appropriate this word is for me at this moment, as I read my freshmen students’ first composition essays of their college careers. In class, I told them that one thing they should not do is begin their essay with any of the following statements or anything resembling these: “Since the beginning of time, man has known…”, “Everyone in the world knows that…”, “All human beings have the same quality that allows them to…”, “Webster’s defines language as….” For many of them, their knee-jerk reaction is to write with this broad scope. They have been taught to begin with the general and move towards the specific so often, they write these sort of statements that are non-statements, words that don’t express anything because of their lack of specificity.
I don’t say these things to give them a hard time. I’m quite sure that I began papers like this way back when. Part of it has to do with the way we Americans are often taught to write and think in high school, where learning is a process of memorization and receiving information rather than a process of inquiry and engagement, and part of it has to do with not trusting the specificity of our own voices and our own experiences. Writing about others is way less vulnerable than writing about ourselves. What could we possibly have to say about ourselves that someone else would care about? Maybe I’ll just quote Mark Twain instead.
When we speak in generalities, we have the cushion of a group to protect us. “We human beings are flawed” is much easier than saying “I am flawed.” “Growing up can be scary” is easier to say than “I am scared.” There is something comforting in “since the beginning of time”, even if it is inaccurate, because we can rest in the assurance that others before us had similar struggles; it makes us feel as if we are not alone. The problem here is that generalities allow us to forget that these groups, these communities were and are all made up of many individual specific people with their own specific stories. The Civil Rights Movement was a movement made up of individual people, each with their own relationship to disobedience, to putting themselves in harm’s way, to wanting to look out for the rights but also the wellbeing of their families. Hurricane Katrina didn’t just happen to “the city of New Orleans.” It happened to the Greater New Orleans area, a community made up of two million individual people, each with their own unique story to tell, with their own sorrows and yearnings and struggles.
As someone who writes nonfiction, I am often engaged in the debate about memoir. Some argue that only people with lives deserving should write memoirs. My questions to them is: Who then is to decide whose life is worthy and whose isn’t? I certainly couldn’t make that decision. I have been just as amazed and moved by stories by “ordinary” people than famous or celebrated ones. There have been times when I’ve found myself completely unengaged by a celebrated author’s work and in contrast completely riveted by the thoughtfulness and words of an undergraduate’s essay. For me, it is all about the resonance and skill of the storytelling, not about the outlandishness of the life lived.
Furthermore, that question itself comes out of an ideology that rings false for me. Because I believe all of our lives are worthy of examination and discovery. We each have unique stories to offer, unique things to say, and I think of how lacking our collective story would be if any of the authors whose work I have read had thought that their voice wasn’t deserving of an audience. That would be a devastating loss. What if James Baldwin decided there had been enough writing done about race and racism, about complicated relationships with father figures? What if Charlotte Perkins Gilman listened to her husband and doctors who told her that her writings was unnatural and problematic, that she needed to stop, instead of continue, for her own health and wellbeing?
We are not selfish in our desire to tell our own stories. We are generous. This desire to tell stories is a sign that we are attempting to engage with each other. We are trying to understand ourselves. We are trying to relate. And you may say, well, that’s a generality; people write for many different reasons. And you would be correct. But I also believe there is something innate in us. We make sense of our lives through story.
While there are things we all share, the “applicable to all” statement is really very limiting and, I think, untrue, especially since we are only able to speak in generalities because of the thinking, researching, recording and writing of individual people who decided to ask questions about why we human beings, specifically and as a group, are the way we are.
And it is only in the effort and process of understanding ourselves, our own desires and motivations, that we have any hope of understanding others. Why do we think the way we think? What makes us lash out in anger or be moved to tears? Why is one conversation like sinking into a soft easychair while another leaves us with itchy skin? I may not know exactly who you are, but the more I read individual stories, the more capacity I have to listen and to really hear you. And only when I am honest with myself and only when I do the work of parsing through my own story do I start to have the ability to understand yours.