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?
Binge reading Edward Hirsch’s books about poetry, in How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, I found the origin of his introduction to poetry. As a boy he was, on a rainy day, looking for something to read and found in one of his grandfather’s books a poem, handwritten and unattributed. Seems his granddad habitually copied poems that he liked into the blank pages of his books. Edward, at eight years old, was captivated by the evocative rhythms of the poem and caught a severe case of poetry. The poem—Emily Bronte’s “Spellbound.” An apt title.
I was, by comparison, late to the party. As a teenager, I clipped John Lennon’s poems from a magazine and taped them to the wall in my dorm room. But that was more a part of the Beatle Mania that infected millions of girls our age. Later, much later, in the process of continuing my nursing education, I took an elective course in literature, the source of contagion. And I read Walt Whitman’s “Son of Myself.” OMG! I remember being alone in my living room and wanting to jump up and run around the room, to show someone this amazing poem. I still revere Uncle Walt. Then there was another elective course in creative writing, and then Intro to Lit, and my first attempts to join the tribe of scribblers.
My education did lead to a BS in Health Science, but it was almost derailed by my fascination with literature. I fell so in love with the written word, that I strayed, promiscuously, into a graduate program in English, and taught comp and lit. And, reader, I wrote poems. Way went on to way and I earned an MFA in Poetry.
So here I sit, in a hotel in Denver, one of the 150 or so poets who will devote the next four days to poetry. It’s a chronic condition and I so hope there is no cure.
After much thought, I’m changing my ways. I’ve deactivated Twitter and LinkedIn, tried to get rid of my personal Face Book page (not a simple task, but I’ll keep trying), all in the interest of using my time better. I’ll leave my Karen Douglass Author page intact, as it might be useful to those who see my blogs through that lens. I mean to spend less time staring at a screen that tries too hard to sell me things or services I don’t want, that reTweets obnoxious political rants, fills my hours with cute puppies or cats, when I have in residence a gorgeous cat and three fine canines. Much better to watch their antics than flat screen analogs. Maybe I’ll unhook the dominos and solitaire apps from my phone.
Instead of enduring a barrage of useless information, I plan to spend more time here, blogging, something that I enjoy and that just might be of use to someone else. I returned library books this morning through the drive-up, so that I wouldn’t be tempted to check out more books. I have, oh, more than a hundred books here at home. I think I’ll reread them from Allende to Zagagewski. These books live here because they please me. I’ll start with my top-twenty shelf.
I hope to be more active on Goodreads, where, again, I might connect with people in a useful way. I’ll be more attentive to Colorado Independent and the News Poetry there. The poetry of witness has been an interest, almost a compulsion, for me for at least a decade, since I took part in a workshop with Allison Hedge-Coke at Naropa University in which Allison asked us to put our art in service to an issue. And do we have issues! Better to attend to them than to admire the shoes or widgets or casual conversations all too present online. Most of all, I will pay much more attention to poetry. I’ve spent years grappling with the art and use of it, so why not get, finally, all in?
There, I’ve said it, so now I’m committed to a better use of my time. We cannot know how much time we each have. No point in wasting any of it.
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.)
Some times I’m slow to recognize an insult when I hear one. Not so long ago I was shopping for holiday gifts and the woman in front of me at the register, whom I know casually, asked me if I make much money from my writing. I grinned and answered her. I answered her! Robotic courtesy. Well, damn, would you ask anyone else whom you know casually what they earn at whatever they do? Do you question the clerk at the register or the server in the diner, the barista? How about the FedEx or UPS driver? Of course not, it’s no one’s business what they make. It did not occur to me at the time to be offended, but I should have been. My income is no one’s business but mine, my banks, and my creditors.
This time of the year I get cranky about money because of the constant pressure to buy things, the sale junk that clogs my email, Face Book, Twitter, mailbox. No, I don’t resent giving gifts to people I love, taking the time to discover what will please them, anticipating their joy with just the right present. But I’m so numbed by the endless ads for things I don’t want to buy that I didn’t even feel that rude question when it came at me like an arrow right in the wallet.
Writing is my work; I expect to be honored as an honest worker, but I don’t expect people to pry and judge my worth by the numbers. Some of the best writers we have ever known earned little, some nothing; some of the worst have made millions. The gauge of good writing in not monetary; it’s the freshness and precision of language and imagery, the surprise in the story or the depth of the poem; it’s the humor or the passion or the grief. An insight. It’s the making something new out of our tiny alphabet, our only raw material. It’s a gift beyond price and money is not the reason for the season. Nor is it the reason I write.
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.