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?

Endings and Bananas

In the Sept/Oct 1917 issue of Poets & Writers, Joyce Maynard, in her essay “Patience and Memoir,” writes that for years she wrote a syndicated newspaper column, Domestic Affairs, in which she always felt the need to find “some kind of conclusion” even if there was none. I see that as one of my issues, the desire to tidy up the mess, leave the reader satisfied, provide dessert after a nourishing meal.

Endings challenge me. Right now, as I type this blog, I am avoiding a needed revision for a novel that ends, as mine often do, abruptly. Why truncate a story after laboring to deliver it fully formed? For one thing, I fear boring the reader, not taking up more of their precious time. Well, that’s not a healthy attitude. And better folk than I have said in various ways to “Stay in the room,” (Judy Reeves, A Writer’s Book of Days); BICHOK–butt in chair, hands on keyboard (Dan Manzanares, Lighthouse Writers Workshop); “Write beyond the last line” (Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer, poet). My own four-word mantra begins with Commit (and includes Discover, Create, Connect). So I’ve committed to a fuller ending for that novel, despite my insecurities.

Writing is like marriage or parenthood. Some days you need to buy bananas but you long to drive past the supermarket, just keep going till the gas gauge hits E. But you don’t. You stop for coffee or a walk in the park. You clean up the mess on the page and bandage your aching ego. And by you, I mean me too.

Writer as Architect

While other little girls were jumping rope or playing with paper dolls, I was drawing house plans. My grandfather was, among other things, a building inspector, and I happily tagged along while he inspected new construction in our small town. If I had been born later in the century, I might have said that I wanted to be an architect, but no one took my interest seriously and I was left to choose between teaching English or nursing. I’ve done both, but deep down I still long to wrestle with big designs. The closest I have ever come to real architecture was to write a newspaper article about Buckminster Fuller, my secret hero. I am fascinated by the tiny-house movement. I live in an apartment of my own design.

Now there is the architecture of a novel challenging me. I have to provide a living structure for my characters, not just a house but several and a city to contain them. My people need roads, offices, and houses with kitchens and bedrooms and good plumbing. They need furniture, doors and windows. They need everything. I’m doing architecture on a grand scale, what would be a planned community if I weren’t dealing with the city of Providence, RI. It’s already there and I have to fit my creations into what exists. Grandad never had such a challenge.

Beyond the world building, I’m wrestling with the structure of the novel itself. What comes first, next, last? Does the story have a strong foundation and enough space to move around in? Will the finish work complement the framing and will the walls hold out the weather? The greatest and worst part of this design is that I’m the only one doing the work. I’m metaphorically hanging sheetrock and painting trim. I can only hope that when I’m done and the “For Sale” sign goes up, someone will buy it.

How Do I Revise?

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.

How to Build a Novel

A novel is a house you invite the reader to rent or to buy. How many rooms does it have, and is it welcoming? Are there clear passageways from room to room? How big is the garden?

My six-book study shows me drastically different buildings by various contractors/builders/designers. I think of Neverhome as a vast open-air place with porous boundaries and few people. It’s a dirty, messy, dangerous place to be and I want mostly for the farm folk to rid it of its unsavory inhabitants. It’s mostly a temporary shelter. Middlemarch, though, is a large edifice with servants and drawing rooms where people, including the author, speak their minds and hearts and mostly are nice to each other. God Help the Child is a sophisticated urban apartment that opens into a rural back yard and the people in one area don’t interact much with those from the other. Summer People, is, of course, a beachfront cottage in constant need of repair from the inside. It’s humid and breezy much of the time, when it isn’t dark and menacing. The Robber Bride–well, this building sprawls, mostly urban and urbane, close to hotels and cafés. And 1000 White Women is a portable teepee, capable of easy movement through space and time. It covers a lot of ground, this fold-away home.

These varied settings contribute to the structure of the story itself. The reader has to move around in the structure, invited or driven from room to room by the point of view and the story line. How fast we move is a matter of the author’s intentions and the necessities of time. Can a character be in Gettysburg one day and back in Illinois the next? No, and if we believe the whole structure, which tells us that Gallant Ash travels on foot. So the structure has to accommodate that relocation. It’s more than setting, this structure business. It’s about containing the whole story in a reliable way, so that the reader doesn’t feel as if the floorboards will break underneath her, or the roof fall in and knock her senseless.

I’m not sure this conceit works, but it’s one of the many ways I think about the novel. If it’s worth the effort to write one, then it’s also worth thinking about it in as many ways as I can muster to make sure it hangs together, thematically and temporally and geographically. Sigh, I can never explain it fully, so I just keep writing, believing that I’ll find a way into and out of this house of words.