I, You, He/she/it/they?

Recently I attended a workshop on point of view and came away confused and overwhelmed. The teacher presented us with six versions of POV with short examples. Too much for me to absorb in one hour. And it all felt prescriptive, as if I ought to select a POV before the story or memoir begins. (Poetry never entered the room, ever the unwelcome guest in a garden party.)

So what do I think about POV? I think it grows out of the relationship between the writer and the reader. It has to do with distance. Mostly, it has to do with voice. Whose voice does the writer transcribe as the piece develops? And it makes its presence known in the language, especially the pronouns, those pesky little words that mean so much. First person–I, we–suggests but does not guarantee a closeness between the narrator and the reader. And it can be unreliable, or as a plural it can hint at connection or community. If a writer dares speak for others, well, go for it. In some cases, it can be useful. In Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” the whole town seems to be telling the story, and in that process revealing a common displeasure and disinterest in the history of the gentile but rebellious Emily. You might want to read this short story.

Really, there is no shortcut to finding the perfect voice to tell a story. Even in memoir we edit our language and revelations. I say, write the story as it comes, set it aside and go back when your head clears, hoping to find that the narrator keeps us reading and is somewhat consistent in telling the tale. Better still, notice how books you love (or hate) work. I’m currently reading Less by Andrew Sean Greer, who scored a Pulitzer for the novel. My inner jury is still sequestered. Greer makes some quirky turns in POV, startles me out of the flow of the story. Halfway through, I’m in no position to judge him. Besides, he has a major award, and I don’t. Does that tell you something?

Keep the Choir Singing

I can’t sing, have no talent for music, play no instrument but the radio. Now, however, more than ever, my one creative skill comforts me and perhaps my readers and listeners. If you poke around on line, you’ll see that I am one of the poets who contribute to Colorado Independent‘s “News Poetry” project.  Colorado Independent  Our readers are, probably, like us. They care about equality, fair and adequate housing, well-funded education, development of renewable energy, environmental awareness and honest government. Our readers are those who sign petitions, call legislators, donate to food banks, support safety and sanctuary for ICE victims.

So, when I write a poem in support of them, pardon my cliché, I know that I am preaching to the choir. And here’s the thing: the choir members who sing for me need to know that I hear them; sotto voce, I hum along. My belief in their efforts helps to keep the choir singing.

The music that is activism must go on. So I’ll go on writing poems of witness, of protest, of awareness, gifts to those whose voices are heard by a public that doesn’t read poetry, poor souls. No, I cannot sing but I can write the words. That’s how the truth gets in. “Imagine” that. (RIP John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Woody Guthrie, et al.)

For the Love of Libraries

At the Corky Gonzales Branch of the Denver Public Library, I just added a fifth to my collection of library cards. This place is welcoming, convenient, big and air conditioned. Another no-sweat afternoon, despite the Colorado heat. I can see the mountains, lush green trees and a blue and white sky. Sigh, all this and a new building full of green energy and good books.

I’ve loved libraries since I was seven and Grammy Cole took me to the tiny Harmony RI library, one room at the back of the fire station. Now Harmony has a proper library in what was once the elementary school. In my tiny Maine high school, our library doubled as the principal’s office. I was sent there often, not because I misbehaved, but because I was the only college-bound senior and had to listen to recordings of Chaucer that would have driven my classmates to despair. For a time in college I had a job shelving books in the University of Maine Portland library. One summer my friend Marcia and I did library tours. We visited at least half a dozen, noting the amenities and the layout.

My local library, the Mamie Doud Eisenhower in Broomfield CO, has outgrown its space and I long for the day when we can expand. Meanwhile, I use any available library as a refuge from the heat and the hustle. Thursday at College Hill Library in Westminster CO, I plunked down in front of a west facing window, my back to the other patrons, just to sit and admire a view of the Rockies, and to browse through a Simone De Beauvoir book from the sale table, The Woman Destroyed, a great buy at 50 cents. Then I headed to the stacks and there! Facing me, a book on my wish list, Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk–a birthday gift in July although I was born in December.

Given the joy of libraries, I should sing hosanna to Benjamin Franklin, who started the first such thing the colonies. He established in 1731 The Library Company of Philadelphia, originally a subscription library in which he and friends pooled their books and shared the purchase of new reads. He hired our first librarian, Louis Timothy, who was paid to work a few hours twice a week. We had a library before we had a country. I hope Ben is looking down from his cloud and marveling at what’s ensued. Thanks, Ben, many thanks.

Reading Scary Stuff

I’ve been thinking about scary stories and my reluctance to read them. My fear relates to seeing years ago the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I was on a first date and just when the movie got intense, the guy I was with disappeared into the men’s room and left me alone in the dark theater with danger on the screen. First and last date, and I still don’t go to many movies. The last one was, I think, The Hundred Foot Journey in 2014. I’ve tried twice now to read Ken Follett’s World Without End, but the opening chapter involves a little girl in danger and I squirm and slam the tome shut. Sorry, Mr. Follett.

Yet, when I look at the book covers posted on various sites, I know I’m out of touch with what’s hot in fiction–murder, mayhem, betrayal and Armageddon. Not my idea of a good read. And yet–yet–I read scary non-fiction that other people won’t touch. Recently I posted a short list of climate-related books on my author FB page and people ran screaming into the night, I guess. Only one of my readers admitted noticing. We can keep the danger in fiction at a safe remove, but science–which is not fake–hits too hard. Scrapes us raw and we retreat into fairy tales. I do that too, but we have to break this habit. Climate fiction helps, some. But sooner, rather than too late, we have to consider the results of our ignorance and our guilt over what we’ve done to the earth and what it will, in return, do to us.

Chasing Rainbows

Yesterday on my way home from dinner with friends in W. Kennebunk, I was awed by a double rainbow, one of which was the biggest, brightest I’ve ever seen. So entranced by keeping it in sight, I made my way to Rte 95, also known as the Maine Turnpike, paid my dollar and realized that, horrors, I had gone through the south-bound toll booth, when I needed to drive north. By the time I reached the next exit where I could turn around, the rainbows were gone and I had to take a stretch of Route One in order to get back on the north-bound highway.

Why am I telling you this? Because chasing rainbows is a bit like chasing my imagination. I had a draft for today’s blog, but I worried that its truth would sting people I love. Writers are truth tellers, right? Rock hard truth tellers. But what if the truth is like throwing rocks at people who don’t deserve such an attack? So I have let that true essay fade. I got back on the right road and it feels so much better than trying to wow the world with clever words.

One of my early readers, a fine writer and teacher named Merrell Knighten, had no problem challenging me about my writing: “It’s clever but is it good?” Good means taking full responsibility for the aftermath of publishing something as ephemeral as a blog. Be careful where you travel, you will want to go home again and not find the door locked.

Reader’s REvision

magusSince my first year in grad school I have read John Fowles’ The Magus repeatedly. I’ve read the original version and I’ve read the revised version he published twelve years later. There’s no counting the copies I’ve owned, including at one time a first edition and a signed paperback. They have all gone away, sold or donated or lost. I think with each reading that I’ve sucked out all the juice and don’t need the book anymore. And I’m always wrong. After a year or two, I drift back and realize that I want to read it again. That happened within the past couple of months, so I picked up a used paperback with ugly, forbidding cover art and opened it. Immediately I realized that the font was too small and that I had to hold it at arms length or suffer the consequences.

Because here’s the rub: pulp paper in newspapers and cheap paperbacks triggers asthma-like attacks where I cough uncontrollably. I got about ten pages into the book and had to give up, wrap it in a plastic bag and vow never again to be careless about buying a book. But I needed to read The Magus again, so I ordered a hardback, used but in very good condition. It’s on my coffee table with a book mark at Chapter 16. I’m going slow, savoring it. And making this copy uniquely my own. And finding new things to ponder and admire.

Back in love with the story and the style, I have penciled in an asterisk where Fowles quotes a brief passage from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. That bit of poetry is crucial to the arc of the story. I’ve adding underlinings, squiggles in the margins, and dots to mark phrases I like. No one else will want this book. There’s a stain on the first page of the introduction where I dropped salad dressing. I think I’ll keep this copy. It’s still juicy and feeds the reader/writer in me.

Please, Read for Equality: catalog of unabashed gratitude by Ross Gay

BETA READERS APPLY HERE

I’ve been on a mini sabbatical, letting the ms in progress marinate in its own juices. Tomorrow I’ll do a blitz read through to mark the places that need attention. I think there’s plenty of work left to do. Then I’ll put the book into readable form and start looking for beta readers. If you’re not familiar with that term, it just refers to the folks who agree to read a nearly finished ms and respond in some detail as to what they think of the book.

As with so many things in life, the 80/20 rule seems to apply here. With the previous novel, only a small percentage of those readers who agreed to help actually did so. But feedback is important before the work goes public, so I’m compiling my list of potential betas. (No, not the Siamese fighting fish, humans who read novels.) Betta_spawningI have many friends who write and I will certainly welcome their opinions, but I also want those of readers, the people who settle in with a book in hopes of enlightenment, entertainment, distraction–whatever makes them turn the pages. If folks reading this post are interested, please look up to the menu bar here on the blog and let me know via the “Get My News” link. In the space with your name add the word beta. Sometime next month I will distribute the ms electronically and hope to have the feedback not later than mid-March.