30 July 2010

From the Archives: Off the Beaten Path of POV

There is a lot to be said for the mainstays of point of view. First person offers the richness of voice and an unparalleled intimacy. It is as if the character is telling you—you!—the story directly, taking you into confidence. Third person has a thrilling range of possibilities, where you choose how much access the reader has to the characters’ inner worlds. But there are several strategies that exist off the beaten path that are worth a look.

Second Person

Second person is cropping up as a more popular experimental form, but it still isn't all that prevalent. Junot Diaz's short story "How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl, or Halfie" is an example of this approach:

Wait for your brother and your mother to leave the apartment . . . Clear the government cheese from the refrigerator. If the girl's from the Terrace stack the boxes behind the milk. If she's from the Park or Society Hill hide the cheese in the cabinet above the oven, way up where she'll never see. Leave yourself a reminder to get it out before morning or your moms will kick your ass.

Notice how the "you" character is a specific and individual person. Second person can be an evocative approach, immediately bonding the reader to the character. It is certainly an interesting and unexpected place to situate the reader. Be careful, as some readers can find this off-putting or gimmicky and the approach—in its uniqueness—has the potential to take over the story itself.

Serial First Person and Serial Third Person Limited

A serial approach is essentially a series of either first person or third person limited perspectives. One chapter or section is in one character's perspective and the next chapter or section shifts to another character's perspective. Russell Banks' novel The Sweet Hereafter is an example of serial first person. The first chapter is told in first person from Delores' perspective. The second chapter is told entirely from Billy's perspective. And so on.

This strategy combines the intimacy of a more limited point of view strategy with the sweep and scope of omniscience. It is important to choose scope carefully when using this strategy. You need to tell a story that demands many perspectives. In Banks' The Sweet Hereafter, for example, the novel follows a town's journey after the loss of most of their children in a bus accident.

First Person Speaking Directly to a Second Person

This strategy employs not only a specific narrator, but also a specific listener. A first person character is speaking directly to another character, one who is clearly defined in the story. David Benioff's short story "Neversink" uses this approach, with a first person narrator addressing the story directly to his former lover:

I got your number from Michael and called you the next night, but you were busy that week, and busy the week after, and I resigned myself to never seeing you again. But then you called me, one month after the birthday party, and invited me to watch the meteor shower.

"It's supposed to be best right after sunset," you told me.

"Meet me in Sheep Meadow."

The sun was nearly down. I brushed my teeth while showering and the sky was still bright as I climbed down the stairs to my subway station. Thirty minutes later I was stumbling over angry meteor watchers in Sheep Meadow. I had forgotten to ask you where to meet, and the Meadow is huge, especially on a moonless night. I thought I saw you lying belly-down on a blanket and I leaned close to make sure.

There is an intimacy to this approach that lets the reader eavesdrop, listening in on heartfelt words aimed directly at a specific listener. It also allows for a different intensity of emotion in that the reader knows who the intended listener is and—eventually—the implication of that. It is vital to eliminate all traces of over-explanation in this approach. Sharing information with the reader without making all the prose sound heavy handed—a speaker telling a listener information she would clearly already know—can be difficult.

What are you favorite reads that use a point of view strategy off the beaten path? Do you experiment with this in your own writing?

28 July 2010

I Heart Libraries

I’ve been feeling nostalgic about libraries lately. Maybe it’s the proliferation of e-readers. Maybe it’s the fact that I can do a lot of library business—like search for and check out books—without even going there. I have such fond memories of a childhood trips to the library—walking the stacks, running my hands along spines, squirreling away in carrels to page through piles of books. I wasn’t on the hunt for anything particular, just looking. A colleague of mine calls today’s search experience a “surgical strike.” You know where you want to go before you get there and you pluck the book (or article, or bit of information) with no regard to what’s around it. We probably save time this way, but we lose a lot in the process. What about the unexpected discoveries that come as a result of browsing? The connections that are made when we open ourselves up to the possibilities that exist outside what we already know we want?

I was thinking about this when I put together my syllabus for a recent Introduction to Creative Writing class. What would happen, I wondered, if I just plunked everyone down in the library near the literature? This was during the poetry unit of the class and they had a task—to find poems that resonated for them in some way. What a delight to see students sprawled out on the floor of the library, noses in slim volumes of poetry, books stacked up beside them. The project had them follow through on the connections they made and I was floored to see just what came of this. Students stumbled upon poems that made them think of their futures, of grandparents who had passed away, of childhood inspirations they’d long forgotten. I did this project with them and found a poem that inspired in me a peculiar sense of dark wonder that I hadn’t experienced in a long time. It may or may not lead somewhere in my own work—I’m still chewing on it—but it certainly sparked something.

What about you? Do you still wander the stacks like you did before card catalogues went the way of trendy apartment decor?

For those of you who miss riffling through those index cards in search of just the right book, this catalogue card generator from blyberg.net that might offer you a bit of cyber soothing. I’ve already spent way too much time with the Dewey Decimal System trying to make clever connections between number and subject that no one will even notice.

Letterpress is Back

After a hiatus, Letterpress is back and we’ve moved into the blogosphere. No need to manage your email subscription. The comments function is on, so all of you who used to send me emails to continue the conversation can now discuss with a much larger pool of writers. I can’t wait!

I'll be posting content from the archives periodically, but will focus mainly on keeping the conversation about the craft of fiction, the writer's life and other bookish topics rolling. I hope you'll join me.