If you’re at all like me, the prospect of a book about parts of speech makes you salivate. So when I saw a NYT book review for Jamie Pennebaker’s latest book, The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, I pretty much needed to hang a drool bucket from my chin. Besides being excited about the book, my thrill was compounded because I am honored to call Jamie my friend, and any time a friend of mine publishes a book it is SUPER AWESOME. (Not long ago, I interviewed Jamie’s wife, Ruth, also my friend and a brilliant and hilarious writer, when her most recent novel, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakthrough, came out.)
Despite his crazy busy schedule—in addition to authoring books, he is also a Professor and Chair of the UT Department of Psychology—Jamie made time for an email interview with me. As I told him, I wish I could just corner him for days or weeks on end and ask him eighty billion questions. The pronoun book, which I just started reading and LOVE, isn’t the only thing I’d quiz him on. I also am a huge fan of his work that demonstrates how writing down your emotions can have a tremendous healing effect. I’ve used two of his books on this topic—Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotions and Writing to Heal: A Guided Journal for Recovering from Trauma & Emotional Upheaval – to bring healing to my own life, and also as the basis for some of my work as a writing teacher.
I just cannot recommend Jamie’s work highly enough. Not only are his ideas and research fascinating, he presents them in a super accessible way. As a glutton for psychology books, I find that accessibility isn’t always the case and the dry nature of some works can totally cause the big snooze effect to kick in—not at all the case for Jamie’s work. In fact the pronoun book comes out of the gates with quotes from Lady Gaga and Paris Hilton.
And so, without further adieu, my Q & A with Jamie Pennebaker.
SG: In this new book you talk about how you sort of accidentally came upon the idea to study pronouns and function words. In your previous work, studying how writing about trauma can have a good impact on physical health, you also noted that you sort of stumbled into that work. I'm sure you aren't being falsely modest and yet... surely there is something beyond stumbling going on? Do you come up with these ideas by keeping an open mind?
JP: I think I'm blessed with a short attention span and without a fixed world view. I'm always attracted to odd things that don't make sense. Perhaps this is the art of stumbling. When you fall down, you have the unique opportunity to see the ground up close and see things you may have never noticed before. Never in a million years would I have predicted that one day I would write a book on expressive writing or on parts of speech. Neither of these topics held the remotest interest to me in graduate school or earlier. Rather, in both cases I was studying something else and some remarkable patterns kept coming up that no one else seemed to notice. I couldn't control myself -- I had to see what was going on.
SG: I have dog trainer friends loathe to reveal their occupation at dinner parties lest they get hit with requests for training advice and tales of "my amazing poodle." When people learn what you study, do you sense that they are monitoring themselves around you? For example I sort of want to not use the word "I" when writing/talking to you, lest I get classified as a narcissist (my worst nightmare).
JP: This recent work on pronouns and other small everyday words can't help but make people self-conscious. Even I get self-conscious talking about them sometimes. Let me assure you that the human ear can't pick up most of these words. You need a computer to analyze them. So you're safe.
SG: Speaking of narcissism-- let's talk about how your work relates to ME directly. I have written a lot about trauma in my life. I feel a whole lot better now, and I chalk a lot of that up to the writing. These days, I write far less often in general, and when I do write I'm more inclined to do theater and food reviews or interview people who fascinate me than I am to reveal "I"-laden deep dark secrets. Hm.... now I forget the connection I was going to make when I thought up this question days ago. I guess I wonder if there is some irony-- if people journal a lot of their bad memories, might they eventually journal their way away from first person commentary? Or maybe what I want to know is is there a direct connection between your trauma writing work and your first person studies?
JP: Let's talk about Spike. You are no different than most people. When terribly bad things happen to us, we naturally want to figure out what went wrong. We almost have to be somewhat self-reflective in order to avoid the same mistakes in the future. Writing about the upsetting experiences and your role in them is healthy. They also coincide with depression -- another time that people use I-words at high rates. As you note, the goal is really to get through or past the upheavals and start living a normal life again. When people are immersed in their worlds, they stop using I-words at high rates. So my advice is to write when life sucks and to stop writing or introspecting too much when life is going well.
SG: Have you changed the way you write and speak since you did your studies about first person pronouns? In particular, did you go out of your way to limit pronoun usage in your book about pronouns?
JP: No, I don't think that restricting your natural language is normal or even healthy. I sometimes analyze my language but only as a gauge of what I'm thinking or feeling. If I have some pronouns that have to be expressed, then they will be expressed.
SG: Are you ruining language for all of us? Just kidding. But so far, what I have read of the book throws me back to the moment in college when I first became aware that a lot of rock bands have four components: lead singer, bass, guitar, drums. Prior to that, I just sort of appreciated a song as a whole and didn't break it down. After that, I started straining to hear the individual parts. When you're reading/speaking, does all the research you've done make you hear and see in a different way? If so, any regrets?
JP: It is very rare that I even hear people's use of pronouns. The only time I notice it is when someone says something that just doesn't fit -- when they use "we" when most normal people would use "I". So no, my work has made my life richer and happier. Regrets? None that I can think of. Wait. I shouldn't have bought that striped shirt that I felt would look fabulous on me.