Overcoming POV Prejudice

I used to heave a metaphorical sigh of frustration every time I saw the word “I” on the first page of a novel.  Now, I no longer count first person point of view as an automatic strike against a book, but I do still think that there are several pitfalls to which this point of view is particularly susceptible.  Though I still think that it’s the POV (well, common point of view…I’m not really counting second person since it’s so rare) most often done badly, I do think that there are some great examples of it done well.At first, I guess I didn’t really have a particular reason to dislike first person, other than a personal preference for third person limited (don’t even get me started on the strangeness that is third person omniscient).  Then, I began to gather a series of assumptions about the way it was typically used: first person was used for contemporary novels, while third limited was used more often in the sci-fi and fantasy that I liked.  Partially because of this content difference, I think, first person tends to occur in books in which there is an overly-emotional narrator or in which the action is more likely to be internal than external.  This trend isn’t due to a limitation of these particular points of view, but rather to lazy authors who tend to use the point of view that they think most easily depicts internal/external action respectively.The problem with using first person in a story that involves a lot of inner conflict is that it can become too much.  Just because our character is wracked with inner turmoil and their thoughts are circling over and over the same topics does not necessarily mean that we have to be taken to every single place their mind goes.  In most cases, a taste of this is enough for a savvy reader to get the point, then we can focus on external actions, or what new thoughts or breakthroughs the narrator has.  Just like we don’t need a description of every sidewalk block our narrator steps on along their walk to school, we don’t need to see their every thought all the time.

Another difficulty with first person arises when switching between the viewpoints of multiple narrators.  With third person limited, the voice and tone of the book can be consistent while still maintaining the individuality of the characters; perhaps different details about scenes stand out to the different characters, or their thoughts tend toward certain topics. With first person, however, the voice and tone has to shift consistently between characters because those passages are being told in their voice.  When done well, multiple-narrator first person is a great way to add depth to a story; when done badly, it makes me ask the question, “why?”  If you did not have a distinct voice for each of your characters, why did they all need to tell the story?  If you didn’t have their voice down, why didn’t you just use third person limited, where you could stick to your own authorial voice?

One final problem, perhaps my biggest pet peeve when it comes to first person POV, is when authors confuse having a good reason to tell a story in first person with having to explain to the reader why this person is narrating.  When I am reading a third person book, I do not expect, at some point, for the invisible floating eyeball to directly address why it is narrating this story.  We know that there is no such thing as a floating consciousness that can see into others’ thoughts; we accept it as a medium through which the story is transmitted directly to us, without actually passing through another consciousness that is actively distilling the story for us.  I don’t see why we can’t just accept first person in the same way.  Epistolary novels, in which the entire text takes the form of letters, e-mails, or diary entries, do need an explanation for why the narrator is telling the story; usually the explanation is clear from the letters, e-mails, or diary entries themselves.  The narrator was trying to communicate to an other (someone other than the reader),or they were writing down their own thoughts.

If it isn’t an episolatory novel, however, and the first person narrator is just relating their thoughts and experiences, either in present tense, as they have them, or in past tense, as they reflect on them, I don’t feel like we need the kind of cop-out explaination I see in many books.  The one paragraph, tacked onto the front or end of the book, saying, “hey, this thing happened, and so-and-so encouraged me to write it down…so I did.”  In most cases, books don’t gain anything from these half-baked explanations because the trope of the narrator as actual author of the book is not carried out throughout the rest of the book; if it is successfully carried out and is integral to the narrative, such an explanation does have a place.  However, we do not need an explanation for why a character is narrating with a perfect memory for detail, or in a far more articulate manner than one would expect from stream-of-consciousness; this is all part of the suspension of disbelief that is necessary to story as a medium.  We don’t question that floating eyeball’s memory or vocabulary, after all.

Finally, lest it seem that I said there are first person narrated stories I enjoy just to avoid being accused of complete stubbornness, here are some books in first person that I’ve recently enjoyed, with notes about why I think that POV works for them.

Easy, by Tammara Webber

The very personal subject matter of this book (assault, relationships, betrayals, and fear) made the first person the most appropriate point of view to use.  Even though pages are spent on internal conflict, the external action is described beautifully as well.

Wolves of Mercy Falls series: Shiver, Linger, and Forever, by Maggie Steifvater

I have a soft spot for these books, which are each told with multiple narrators.  While I feel like Steifvater’s poetic authorial voice is so strong that it might sometimes smooth out the differences between the characters’ voices (four teenagers who all think/narrate in concise, lyrical sentences?), what she does beautifully is capture each character’s view on the situation.  The vocabulary and philosophy that each character uses to interpret their world, as well as the unspoken thoughts and backstory that are revealed are a powerful part of why these novels may constitute the most beautiful YA series I’ve read in years.

Chime, by Franny Billingsley

The main character’s unique stream of consciousness and tortured views of herself are integral to understanding why she acts as she does.  The voice of the narrative is so unusual that I thought I wouldn’t be able to get through the first chapter, but the sing-song narration became one of my favorite parts of this novel.

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55 miles to inspiration

There is this whole concept of a “writer’s retreat” where people with enough money (i.e., clearly not me) go to some quiet cabin in Maine or to the middle of the Arizona desert and just write.  Sometimes they go with their profound and clearly talented writer friends, because people who are intimidatingly talented and successful like to band together to maximize the amount of envy they inspire from the rest of us.  The concept seems to be that, unless you are already incredibly inspired and in a state of flow, it is kind of hard to make yourself write when you are surrounded by dishes to wash, piles of clutter that stare at you in a judgmental manner from atop your shelves, or people who seem to think that staring into space while sitting in the general vicinity of a laptop is not important work, so you should come with them to see the latest superhero movie because you clearly have nothing better to do.  In theory, going somewhere quiet takes you away from this and makes it easier for you to write.

On the one hand, I agree that getting out of your routine, that putting yourself in a space that you define as “for writing” can be very helpful to get you out of a rut.  Putting yourself into a place physically can help you to put yourself into an analogous space mentally.  But what kind of space should this be?

Scientific research has shown that when you’re stuck on a problem, going for a walk in nature helps you think of a solution, but there is no similar evidence for benefits of walking in an urban environment.  That doesn’t mean that natural environments specifically spark creativity; maybe just that a change of environments does, since most of us live and work in urban/suburban environments.  There is also ample evidence to back up the idea that novel experiences, especially travel, can be invigorating to creativity because they force you to see things from a different perspective, a tactic that you can then more easily apply to your work.  There is also evidence that the hundreds of daily interactions and intersections occurring in cities lead people to be more productive and more creative than they would have been in isolation.  Having more sights, sounds, and things to serve and nucleation points for your own ideas seems like it would logically lead to a greater quantity and hopefully thus a greater quantity of high-quality ideas.

So, where then, should a writer go when seeking inspiration?  I think all of the above work from time to time.  We don’t all have the time and money for writing retreats, so toting our laptops to the local cafe may have to serve on a regular basis.  Even if you have the money to get away, I wouldn’t want all of my vacations to be to remote areas known for their quiet and solitude; I would also try to explore, to have as many novel and perspective-shifting experiences as possible while I was away because, in addition to being valuable in their own right, they could be the seeds of creativity that I could bring home with me.  I think that the “where” of writing has as much to do with mental maps as physical ones. Maybe putting yourself in country of “just did some yoga and ate some farmers market berries” instead of “just did some dishes and ate some leftovers” can have as much of a profound effect on your work as putting yourself in the south of France versus the southern end of your couch.  If you are worn-out and doing and redoing on the routine in your life, how can you expect your writing not to reflect that?  I’m a big believer that all aspects of our lives are interconnected, from the mental and emotional to the outer, so I always clean my house when I’m feeling scatter-brained and I suggest you put yourself somewhere refreshing and energizing (wherever that is for you) in order to reinvigorate your work.

I once was lost, but now profound

Do you ever have times when you feel like you should be profound?

You feel like you should be in a tiny cafe listening to a poetry reading or watching a sunset on a rooftop with a guitar.  Moments when, to quote The Perks of Being a Wallflower, you should feel “infinite.”  A moment when you feel the breeze on your face and with the breeze should come that feeling that a part of you is seventeen again, listening to rock music while riding in your friends’ car in the summer evening, and you know that you could do anything.

It’s kind of like the exact opposite of writer’s block.  Instead of being in the frame of mind to create and throwing your bucket repeatedly and repeatedly into an empty well, you feel like a fountain, an endless stream of potential, if only you could achieve that “infinite” feeling, if only the humidity would drop to 50% and the mercury would hit 68 degrees just as the moon comes over the trees at the edge of the subdivision and “Boys of Summer” comes on the radio.  You know you’ve felt those moments; maybe those are the only moments in your life that you’re really alive and the rest, from the cubicles to the coupons is just a dream.  For the life of you, you don’t know how to capture that feeling.

But instead of discussing German poetry over croissants at an independently-owned, fair-trade coffee shop with friends who were philosophy majors and most get by on couch surfing and the free food at art gallery openings, you are just running around your apartment, full of manic energy alternating between having music on because it almost makes you feel profound and having it off so you can concentrate on being profound.

Or am I the only one?

(When you have to ask the question, the answer is usually, “I’m the only one”)

Welcome to My Blog

Hello, internet.

This is my blog.  The header title comes from a song by the Ataris.  The full lyric is, “on random notes of parchment, I’m scrawling my existence…dressed in white.”  The description comes from a Fall Out Boy song.  I know that twenty-somethings who graduated from prestigious private universities are only supposed to acknowledge the existence of pop culture when they engage in facebook wars over whether Batman is a paternalistic capitalist and Spiderman is really the superhero of the working class, but I have to admit a weakness for early 2000’s emo music.  There, now that that’s out of the way, what is this blog about, anyway?

I write.  I read.  I’ll be writing about writing and you can read about my reading.  I’ll write about life.  And maybe, when I’m being completely sincere, I’ll be funny.  I’m told that the less I try, the funnier I am, with the result being that when I’m at my most earnest, I’ve got my family in stitches.

So, here goes.