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?
No one I know proceeds through a writing project without the occasional stutter step. Sometimes I fall, not from grace, but a face plant. Dry docked, shut down, blocked. Ouch! And that’s just the day that some skeptic asks how the book is selling, or when I’m doing a public reading. All I can do is shrug and own my stalled “career.” It’s momentarily embarrassing, a suggestion that, as my inner critic sometimes reminds me, I’m not really a writer. A real writer has an agent, an editor, a PR person, and a house on a hill. So what am I doing living in a basement apartment (which I actually like) and counting my dimes and dollars?
This angst is part of creative writing, as opposed to the popular image of authorship. My “ship” is a dinghy dragged up on the shore until I push it back into the water and take up the oars again. And row, maybe with no destination but an intent to go where the tide takes me. Just see what’s there and enjoy the sun and the breeze. It’s not a lost day if all I do is journal, muse on paper. (Hmm, that sounds like a line for a poem, or a new sandwich.)
If you too get stuck, just go with it. You might need a break, but I doubt you’re broken.
Regular followers know that I sometimes list books or reminders meant to promote equality in publishing and reading. Well, here’s one that I want to highlight: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. I chose to read this book because it will be featured at a book club this week in Boulder. By the time I finished reading and went to sign up, the discussion was already full. That’s a little frustrating but a good sign that adult readers have plenty to say about what is touted as a YA novel. That’s not half of it. This story takes us into the life of sixteen-year-old Starr, a black girl attending a primarily white school and managing to fit in, although at times she feels invisible and divided, her diction tailored, one vocabulary at school and another in her neighborhood. Quickly, we get in deep, as there is a white-cop-black-victim shooting, and Starr is the only witness. Add gangs, drugs, and poverty. Enough excitement yet?
From this point on the narrative tears through racial tensions, including Starr’s attachment to her white boyfriend and to her radical black father who loves her but opposes the romance. And that’s just part of the story. What I most appreciate is the view of family life, complexity of community, and character development as Starr wrestles with opposing decisions, to speak out about the shooting or to maintain a polished image in her affluent white school despite her impoverished home neighborhood. Additionally, the writing is fine, well developed and perfectly plotted. If this is YA, good for the young people who will read it. Better still for the adults who might not notice it without prompting.
I carry a wallet full of library cards. You never know when you’ll need a book. My libraries include Anythink Wright Farms, in Thornton, Colorado. I’m there most Mondays when they open at 9:30. I was there yesterday; that’s how I start my work week. And there’s no predicting what might be going on. Yesterday, having coffee with my friend at the library cafe–yes, in the library there’s a cafe–and my librarian friend, Laura, came to say hello and tell us that there were goats out in the playground. Yes, this library has a huge playground adjacent to the children’s room. And there were goats! I love goats. The cover art on one of my poetry books, Two Gun Lil, features me as a child with a goat under my arm.
My first library was in Harmony, RI, a single room behind the fire station. This small but mighty place had an important effect on me. I cannot imagine my life without books in an almost limitless supply. Soon I’ll tuck another library card into my wallet for my annual trip to Maine, where I’ll visit the Berry Memorial Library in Bar Mills. I hold card number 345. It’s a small town.
This afternoon I’ll go back to Anythink to see “Birds of Prey with HawkQuest.” I’m crazy for raptors and welcome the chance to see them up close. Up close and live will be an owl, eagle, falcon, hawk. In a library! A few weeks ago there were baby chicks in a heated tub. Thursday evening I’ll be there again to hear Colorado’s Poet Laureate, Joseph Hutchison read from his newest book, Eyes of the Cuervo/Ojos del Crow.
I’ve said it before, but it’s important: Ben Franklin gave the USA a marvelous gift, although libraries have changed their services over the years since he hired a librarian to care for books that Ben and friends shared. Patience and Fortitude, the marble lions, still sit in front of the NY Public, mecca of sorts. I think of them often, take comfort that they endure. If you haven’t been to a library this week, go. It will do you good.
Contemplating my to-do list: get ready to sign books on Saturday, send out poems, shop for a birthday gift for my most amazing daughter (one of two best things I’ve ever done, her brother being the other), lunch today and tomorrow with good friends, a committee meeting tonight tacked onto the one from yesterday, and celebrate the freedom I have to do these things. On days when my list is long and I try to hide behind the solitaire screen, I could, instead, get up and get going. Time will not stop, so why do I?
Writing a new poem, building a lesson plan, revising what resists revision, these are privileges not given to everyone. And, yes, I must honor my commitment to my chosen calling, but sometimes I am so afraid of not living up to the traditions of authorship that I stall and have to force my fingers to the keyboard or pen to paper.
What others see is the product of my determination. They don’t see the hesitation, the doubt or anxiety. Those I edit from my public persona, but many of you who read this will recognize the feeling. And the need to tell that weary self-critic to “Hush, just hush. I’ve got work to do, work that I love and honor.” May you too on this no-particular morning, get something done and reward yourself with a “Well done,” even if what you do is imperfect.
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’m not sure anymore what revise means, but what I am doing with the novel ms is rewriting. Yes, I am retyping every chapter, sentence by sentence, sometimes word by word. In this time of cut/copy/paste, people often look at me as if I were hopelessly stupid. But this is actually my third pass at the ms. My first drafts are handwritten, then typed and printed, then retyped and printed. Close attention at every stage lets me see changes that make for a better book. Typing a sentence gives me a chance to be sure I’ve not left those cursed dangling/misplaced modifiers, used exactly the right word to convey the image that brings the story to life, and gives readers the clues they need to stay inside the story. A novel is a world in which a reader resides, if the writer quiets the outer world of distractions, gives no excuse to leave the scene of the crime or the next big thing that develops character and storyline. Once we are buckled into the rollercoaster and the ride starts, no one gets off if I’ve done my work well.
As I write this, I’m about 15% done with the rewrite. Chapters are not yet numbered because I’m holding my options open as to what follows what. (Each tentative chapter has a slug line/title that cues me as to its content.) I have three main characters and I want the reader engaged with each one for a significant amount of time. If the POV changes too quickly, it’s like a series of little climbs and drops on that rollercoaster. I prefer a pretty long ascent before we drop and start to climb again. As I see it, when I rework the ms for the fourth time, I’ll decide on the structure and then send it off to those sainted beta readers before it ever gets to the professional editor. I want to present the best ms I can so that any advice I get is meaningful. It’s work, yes, but it’s satisfying work. My process does not work for everyone, but after years of writing and teaching, I can say it’s a viable way to approach creative writing.