No more passive voice

Last week in the scientific journal Nature, Peter Fiske wrote about the need for scientists to use an active voice in their writing and careers, rather than the passive voice. Writes Fiske:

When I was in graduate school studying geology and environmental sciences, many of my professors insisted that we students write our manuscripts in the passive voice: “This was done” rather than “I did this”. They reasoned that removing the agent from the description of the action lent an objective tone. As scientists, we stood apart from our work and encouraged others to critique it (rather than us).

Yes, I'm a writer. No, I'm not lecturing you about grammar.

The passive voice, as Fiske goes on to explain, permeates not only how people write about science but also how scientists approach their careers: waiting for something to happen to them, rather than making that something happen. Although Nature is geared towards scientists and Fiske's article was meant for the people who read Nature, I realized as I read his article that so much of my life had been lived in "passive voice."

I got an A on a test because the test was easy, not because I studied hard. My good grades had to do with the test being easy, rather than my working hard. I got internship placements because I put all the right words in the right places, not because I was a solid candidate. Ditto for getting into graduate school. These had nothing to do with me and my accomplishments, but more with my simply telling people what they wanted to hear. I had friends because there were few other options, not because I was friendly. I relapsed because life sucked, not because I didn't use better coping skills. Life really did suck, but I have to remember that the general suckage of life didn't cause my relapse. There were points along my path where I could have dug myself out and I didn't; eventually things progressed to the point where I really couldn't dig myself out. And I also actively reached out for help. My parents and treatment team did sort of "strong arm" me into recovery, but I also chose to go along with it.

Active voice. Not passive.

Some parts of life happen to us, whether it's a natural disaster or something else that's out of our control. Come to think of it, there's much of life we can't really control in an "active voice" sense. But that doesn't mean that life is a passive voice experience. Which includes ED recovery.

I have waited around for years for recovery to "happen" to me. I waited for the inspiration, for the "ah-hah" moment. I waited to feel like eating or gaining weight. I thought recovery would just happen one day, as long as I waited it out and kept my fingers crossed. It's been a rather rude wake-up call to find me struggling, still, so many years into this. Although time helps heal the wounds, time alone isn't enough.

I need to integrate more active voice into my recovery, identify more things for me to do and to work on, to take a more prominent and engaged role in my recovery rather than just waiting for things to "happen."

How do you use the active voice in your life? How about in your recovery?

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Finding Melissa said...

Wow - I sometimes feel like you're reading my mind. There are two things that really struck me about this post. Firstly, it was something about how disempowering the passive voice is. It means that everything's down to everyone else and, for me, this was a reflection of the fact that I couldn't see any value in myself. Yet again, it came back to self esteem. The friend thing - only option / last resort - is a theme I am still not able to shrug off. Thinking of this as passive is a great way of taking some power and ownership back, and building stronger foundations for myself.

The part about recovery also resonated and I wrote a while back about the "tomorrow" myth. Waiting for recovery to "feel" right was a horrible illusion and it only started to feel right (and then, only marginally) when I engaged with the process. I really wish it hadn't taken me so long to realise this.

Angela E. Gambrel Lackey said...

I get this same crap about passive voice in grad school for English studies, and constantly debate it because that is not how I write nor how I am - passive I am not (a little Yoda joke there.)

Carrie, I am already noticing a change in your voice. It has become much more personal and active, and very engaging. I liked your blog before - the science was interesting and many of the topics were thought-provoking (prompting me to write one post of my own.)

I love your blog now. You are no longer intellectualizing your illness, you are confronting it head on with your new, active voice. It is very engaging, and I think it's because you are finding your voice and rejecting years of being taught to write in a passive voice. Because I don't think you are a passive person, and the growth of your strength shows with each new post. I think it started with the redesigned layout, and it has taken off from there.

Keep it up, because I think it could be a crucial key in your recovery. I believe there is no one crucial moment in recovery - just moments upon moments that build upon each other to lead us back to health. Each word you write now is a building block in the tower each one of us must climb toward recovery - and climb you will; I have complete faith in you!

mariposai said...

Very interesting :-) Up until the last year I was using a passive voice almost to avoid engaging fully in life. I was afraid to commit to and own anything I did. Only now am I discovering the confidence that goes with a more active internal narrative, and this is allowing me to make exciting new choices, which are bringing many wonderful opportunities into my life which I never even imagined could exist.

As always, your posts always give me new ways to think about recovery and life in general, so thank you :-)

Sarah x

jadedchalice said...

I fully agree with you, which is exactly why i started my blog. So far I have been using it as my method of group therapy. It is a safer environment for me to express myself openly instead of living in the world of passive communication that i have for so long. Please feel free to read my blog to see how I have been actively communicating and taking an active roll in my own recovery...especially since i have neither the resources or the means to get the help I truly need. However perhaps the reason my method of recovery is helping me at this time is because for the first time I am actively communicating and being honest with myself instead of being passive and lying to myself. For the first time I can say what I truly feel and have found that i am faced directly with my issue in a way where i must cognitively address it and move one direction or another. So all in all I agree with you.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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