DO YOU HAVE a back door to your home that you rarely use? Have you ever sat in the back seat of your own car? Walked backwards down a hiking trail and looked at where you've just been? Gaining a new perspective on life is often easier when we move to a new neighborhood, or start a new job, or discover a new friend. Seeing our written work with a new perspective is not always as easy.
A few years ago, I spent a month alone in a remote cabin in the wilds of Wyoming on the edge of the Cloud Peak Wilderness area. No running water, no phone, no fax, no electricity, no laptop, no BlackBerry, no iPod, no other humans. Just thousands of acres of forests of ponderosa and lodge-pole pine, prime habitat for mountain lion and bear. I spent two or three hours each day hiking the elk trails. To avoid getting lost, learned quickly to check my back trail--to stop, turn around, and look at where had just been.
The trails look much different when seen from this backward vantage point. Landmarks appear that you failed to notice when looking forward. But this backward perspective is the one you'll need at the end of the day if you are to find your way home. These are the landmarks that will eventually lead you, and your story, to your final destination.
Sometimes we get lost in our own stories. We find ourselves so deeply immersed in the dense landscape of our words that we fail to give our readers the landmarks they need to find their way home. Maybe we've led the story astray because we've relied on the wrong narrator at the wrong time. Or we've used the right narrator, but in the wrong scene. Or we've chosen the wrong scene to bring to life and leave a pivotal scene unrealized and an important character struggling off camera with the most dramatic conflict of the story. Sometimes we narrate when we should let our characters talk, or use dialogue when we need narrative to develop atmosphere. Storyland can be fraught with confusing twists and turns. It's easy to get lost.
Once, I even lost my voice. It was during the month I spent at the remote cabin in Wyoming. By the third week there, my vocal cords literally dried up. When I finally opened my mouth for the first time to read aloud a short story that had spilled forth onto my journal, about a sardonic spider and a foolish coyote, the sound that came out was as raspy as a rusty file. I had been silently perceiving the world around me for three weeks--listening to the bugling elk, the cooing blue grouse, the gravelly sound my footsteps made when I scrambled up the scree that littered the steep mountainside. But I had not spoken. The sound of my own voice was disorienting, as if a stranger lurking in the trees all that time had suddenly shown himself. Narrative intrusion in a novel can have this same disorienting effect on readers, pulling them abruptly away from the make-believe world in which they were so gratefully immersed.
In writing my historical novel Shifting Stars, there were times I felt disoriented within the story's landscape--overwhelmed by the history I wanted to convey, by the journey I expected two of the main characters to take (a grandmother and granddaughter separated 10 years), by the obstacles I knew they would en-counter and the tragedies they would endure. I needed someone to guide me through the emotional waters of writing the novel.
When my editor, Harriet, read the manuscript, she didn't balk at the six different points of view I'd used to tell the story, with the exception of a few critical scenes written from the point of view of an old mountain lion. Like the old grandmother in the novel, the animal was also on her dying journey. "Why is the cougar needed?" Harriet asked. "It's not as if she's supernatural. She doesn't exactly do anything."
I responded that animals often have lives that run parallel to ours, but usually we're unaware of these dual paths. We tend to believe that we humans live our lives in isolation from the natural world. It was the natural and organic synchronicity of a cougar on a parallel path with a human that I found fascinating. Harriet finally agreed. "The cougar can stay," she said.
Later, I recounted this conversation to Gaydell Collier, a close writing friend. Her response was insightful. "Maybe the cougar was there to guide you through the book," she said. She was correct. The cougar had been one step ahead of me the entire time, leading the way, guiding my perspective as the plot developed and scenes unfolded. All other perspectives derived from this fundamental guiding point of view.
In the poem "I Want to Write," novelist and poet Margaret Walker gives us a glimpse into the heart of the emotional impetus that guided her work. She wanted to "write the songs" of her people, to hear them "singing melodies in the dark, to catch the last floating strains from their sob-torn throats."
This is a worthy question to ask ourselves. Why do we want to write this particular story, at this particular juncture in our life? Perhaps it's the question that should precede all others so that when we face that blank sheet of paper, or blank screen, we can return to the answer and renew our sense of purpose.
In Walker's case, it was the burning desire to capture the African-American experience that propelled her work forward. Her bestselling novel Jubilee (1966) chronicled the progress of a slave family after the Civil War. By telling their story, she was keeping alive their struggles, and their victories. This sense of purpose imbues narrative and poetic voice with authenticity and urgency.
There is an aboriginal folk story that tells us that the world is in a continual state of creation, a continual state of dreamtime kept alive by story and song and art. Could, then, our own emotional reasons for writing be small cogs in a much larger wheel? I like to think so.
1 Identify the underlying emotion fueling your desire to write this particular story. What motivation is propelling you forward? In the novel I've been working on for a few years, the desire to write a story that honors the place of my birth has led me onward for 600 pages. The main character, Selu, embodies everything I love about Denver and the land on which it's built. When I find myself disoriented within the landscape of the story, I return to my original motivation--to honor the land of my birth--and am guided back on course.
I also return to the aboriginal culture of Australia. In an interview with Parabola: Where Spiritual Traditions Meet, anthropologist Robert Lawlor talks about the aborigines' concept of land and story. "Aboriginal people travel constantly and rarely camp in the same spot; however, when a child is about to be born, the grandmother brings the mother to a particular place, she scoops out the earth, and the mother ... delivers the baby onto the earth.... [The child] inherits the stories of that place.... He alone carries the songs concerning the Dreamtime origins of that place."
What songs do you carry within yourself? How do they relate to the story you want to tell?
2 Identify the desire, or motion, that propels each character forward. In Kurt Vonnegut's Fates Worse Than Death: An Autobiographical Collage, he tells us every character should want something, even if it's only a glass of water." Identify that "glass of water" for each character, and then let this desire color everything the character does and says. Then take it a step further and identify the conflict, the insurmountable obstacle standing in the way of each character getting that "drink of water." The answers to these questions shape perspective, how the character views and responds to the world in which your story takes place. Ask what the relationship is between the character and the setting.
"The old man stared into the valley with his eager eyes...," John Steinbeck wrote in the final story in his collection The Pastures of Heaven. "He beat his hands helplessly against his hips. 'I've never had time to think. I've been too busy with troubles ever to think anything out. If I could go down there and live down there for a little while--why, I'd think over all the things that ever happened to me, and maybe I could make something out of them, something all in one piece that had a meaning, instead of all these trailing ends."
3 Determine which character has the most at stake in each scene, and how each scene affects each character. In the first draft of my memoir In Search of Kinship, I wrote 20 pages about a tragedy that occurred in my husband's family 15 years before we met. It seemed necessary at the time. But as I reread those 20 pages, I realized that I was not telling my story; I was telling his story. I rewrote those pages, beginning with where our two stories intersected. If you're writing fiction with multiple points of view and a scene isn't working, ask yourself: Which character has the most to gain or lose in this scene? The answer will guide you toward the most riveting point of view, and inform your decision about which scenes to dramatize and which can remain as backstory.
If you're writing memoir and describe an event that had a pivotal impact on your life, don't worry about trespassing on someone else's emotional terrain as long as you are telling your story.
Peggy Simson Curry, Wyoming's first poet laureate, observes in her classic book Creating Fiction From Experience that "Emotional reactions may be used as transition posts: 'His anger left him as he went out to plough the spring fields...' " She also reminds us, "If the opening page of a story affects the characters, it will move the reader."
4 Experiment by writing the same scene from different points of view. What if each character seems equally invested in the outcome of a scene? What if you can't decide which one has the most at stake? The first 134 pages of Dai Sijie's charming first novel, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, is told entirely from the point of view of the 17-year-old narrator. Then suddenly, on page 135, a scene unfolds from the point of view of an old miller. He has seen Luo (the narrator's best friend) and the little Chinese seamstress in the woods, swimming and making love in a pool of deep green water. "Yes indeed," he tells us, "I saw the two of them, both as naked as worms.... I was keenly aware of being an old man whose body was limp where it was not bony.... I would never taste the watery delights enjoyed by them."
Three pages later, the point of view switches and we see the scene through Luo's eyes. "I was stunned by the grace of her sinuous body and her long hair rippling in the water." Three pages later, the point of view switches again and we see the scene through the eyes of the little seamstress. "You want me to tell you what happened the last time we were there?" she asks the reader. "We arrived at the pool towards noon.... Luo flung his key ring into the water, and it sank like a pebble. I stepped into the pool ... and ran my fingers over the stony bed and groped in the shadowy recesses where the water was almost black until, suddenly, I touched a snake ..."
A few pages later, and we're back to the first-person point of view of the main narrator. We stay there the rest of the novel. Why these sudden, temporary shifts? What was the author trying to do? I have a hunch he simply started to experiment with POV, jumping playfully inside the lives of the other characters to relieve a bit of first-person boredom. It can be boring for an author to be confined inside the same character's head for an entire novel. A sudden departure can refresh and bring you back to your main narrator with more insight into his or her world. Whether or not you decide to weave these experimental forays into the final draft of the novel should depend on how expertly you craft them. But do experiment.
5 Direct the point of view. Tom Jenks, co-editor of Narrative Magazine, teaches that the reader should know more than the character knows, and that the narrator should have a clearer vision than the character. By the end, if the character makes the right choices, the gap between his vision and the narrator's vision narrows. If the character makes the wrong choices, the gap widens.
In Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men, Sheriff Bell offers the reader a wiser perspective than the characters. His is the voice of experience and reflection. Llewellyn Moss, the character for whom the reader cheers, stumbles upon a grisly murder scene. This fateful blunder catapults him toward his destiny at a riveting pace. Yet each movement of Anton Chigurh (the remorseless killer who is hunting Moss) is precise and calculated. This man does not blunder. It is the narrowing gap between what each character knows, and what the narrator and reader know, that makes this novel a page-turner. The three main characters tumble headfirst into the story, like three rivers cutting deep, swift channels across a barren landscape, bent on collision.
When writing a scene, analyze what information the reader is privy to that the character does not yet know. Analyze what the narrator knows that the reader does not yet know. If you're keeping a secret from the character and the reader, ask yourself why. If you're with-holding information from the reader that the character is privy to, ask yourself why. You may have a good reason for doing so, but do so intentionally. Like a movie director guides the cameraman, you can direct the reader's eye.
STEP AWAY from your own work and look for opportunities to "play" with the work of other writers. Here's an example.
The first two stanzas of Richard Wilbur's poem "The Writer" reveal a father standing on the stairwell outside his daughter's bedroom door. He hears the busy clatter of typewriter keys and realizes that "the stuff of her life is great cargo."
Then the noise stops for a moment, and the house is still, and then the clamoring begins again. He recalls a small bird that had been trapped in her bedroom two years earlier, "And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,/We watched the sleek, wild, dark/and iridescent creature ..."
The entire poem is written from the perspective of the father, outside the room. Find a copy of the poem (it's posted several places on the Web, including at www.poets.org) and read the poem. Visualize the father on the stairwell and his daughter behind the door. Take your imagination, leave the father outside the door, and enter the room. Sit with the daughter at the typewriter. What is she thinking? What is the heavy cargo weighing on her mind? Write for 10 minutes from the daughter's point of view.
BEFORE AND AFTER
Giving a character voice
When I was still unhappy with my novel All the Water Yet to Come after the third revision, I took a hard look at how the background story of the main character was unfolding, and what the ratio was between the backstory and the front story. Here was one of the opening passages from the third revision:
Selu had been born on a sheep ranch
near the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming--to
a Basque father and a Cherokee
mother. "Your ancestors are like
streams," her mother once told her, "their
waters may spill from many different
lands, but finally, in you, they flow together.
You are like ama-edohi, the watercarrier.
Without the water carriers,
the corn does not grow."
Frustrated at the emotional flatness of these words, I sat down and rather than revising, I imagined Selu writing a memoir. I put my fingers on the keyboard and let her talk--in first person this time. I heard something different, an emphatic nature that had not been there in third-person narration. She spoke as if she had a story to tell, not me, and that I'd better listen:
My name is Selu Ama-edohi Anna
Martone Naciente. I am an old woman
living above an old river. Ama-edohi is
what my mother used to call me. It
means Carrier of Water in Cherokee.
Anna means grace. An old Slavic word--it
was my father's mother's name.
Why would a Basque woman named
Martone have a Russian name, you ask?
I do not know. Naciente was my husband's
name. He told me it means rising,
like the sun. And Selu? Selu is the
Corn Mother. She is all about hope and
survival. So you see? I have a big name
to live up to.
I wrote in first-person narrative for five more pages and was reminded that real-life people do not live their lives in backstories, and neither should our characters. If Selu's story was to come alive on the page, I had to let her live it on the page.
The next day I plucked an important scene from the backstory of Selu's childhood on the Wyoming sheep ranch and let it unfold in real time. Rather than a scene in which an old woman sadly recalled the morning she accidentally shot her father's prize ewe (instead of the eagle preying on the ewe), the scene became a living thing that the reader could experience along with the character--the cold metal of the gun's trigger against Selu's young finger, the bitter April wind snatching her breath away.
The rifle exploded. Silence followed.
The recoil knocked Selu to the ground.
The wings of the eagle beat the air but
it was the ewe that fell to the earth, a
deep redness seeping into her wool
where the bullet had pierced her side.
With a flurry of wings, the eagle took to
* Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card. This book, written by a master of the science-fiction genre, offers practical, in-depth instruction on how fiction writers can make the best choices in creating characters and handling viewpoint.
* Creating Fiction From Experience by Peggy Simson Curry. This small classic, now out of print, includes chapters on "The Roots of Experience," "The Realm of Emotion," "Of Time and Transition," and "Viewpoint: A Persuasive Light." (Used copies can be found with relative ease.)
* My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. An interesting character study of point of view and perspective by a brain scientist who observed herself having a massive stroke. She recounts her story in an 18-minute video made in 2008, available for free at TED: Ideas Worth Spreading, www.ted.com, and in a book published in 2007.
Page Lambert is author of the memoir In Search of Kinship and the novel Shifting Stars. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications including The Christian Science Monitor and Sojourns. A writing coach and conference speaker, she leads writing adventures and retreats. Web: www.pagelambert.com.
Source Citation:Lambert, Page. "What's your perspective? Sometimes it pays to turn your creative writing upside down and inside out, and let your work rediscover itself.(STEP BY STEP)(Essay)." The Writer 122.9 (Sept 2009): 24. Academic OneFile. Gale. BROWARD COUNTY LIBRARY. 31 July 2009
Gale Document Number:A203955047
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