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I was talking to my pal Jenny today about a piece she’s been working on.
“Is it essay or fiction?” I asked.
“Both, kind of,” she said.
“Oh!” I said.
“It’s first person and then shifts to third, which tells a kind of fictional story, and then it shifts back to first, which is nonfiction again,” she said. Also, she said, there were more in there. More POVs! She may have said “mashed” in there. No, I’m sure she said it more elegantly than that, but suffice it to say, POV-wise, she’d pulled out all the stops.
My first reaction was that her “essay-story” (a combo that deserves its own blog post) sounded terrifically cool, and (bringing it back to me) that I was way too inhibited. Why wasn’t I writing second-person-plural reminiscences of childhood (you know, the “y’all” story?) and first-person-plural takedowns of the military industrial complex? (“First, we built the MX.”) Well, it’s not too late for new tricks. Instead of beating myself up over it, I did what any sane person would do and contacted our resident POV expert at Lighthouse, Rebecca Berg, who agreed to answer a few Qs.
Q. When I was first starting to write, I thought the only two viable POVs were first person and third limited. Somehow I have hardly ever questioned that assumption since! Did that mythology grab hold of you, too, and what inspired you to try and escape it?
Berg: I was worse! This is going back to the dark ages, but when I first started writing fiction, I was strictly a first-person person. Any kind of third, even a limited third, seemed impossible. I don’t think I could have articulated it at the time, but just saying “he” or “she” implied a consciousness outside the characters in the story. It made me squirm. Apparently I’d pretty well internalized the notion that the author shouldn’t stick her nose in. The result was that I wasn’t able to “say” the things that most interested me. The writing had a stiffness and a staginess–paradoxically a self-consciousness–that really bugged me. My prose was stupider than I was. And really, you know, it should be the other way around.
Also, I wanted to tell stories that were more than one person’s stories.
Q. What’s the most exciting thing you’ve tried with POV since that time?
Berg: Oh, omniscient first person. It’s a chapter from the novel I’m currently working on, in which a foster child meets his biological mother and finds some things out and then, because he’s a guy who is deeply and compulsively inclined to empathy, talks about how and why he was taken from her from her POV. He says “I” for himself and “she” for her, but he enters into her thoughts and perceptions and narrates events he never witnessed–without any apology for doing so. And of course he also knows some things she didn’t at the time of the event, so he can step back from the narrative or flash forward with total naturalness. It was an incredibly freeing thing to write.
Q. Any recommended reading of writers who play interestingly with POV?
Berg: A lot of novelists and short story writers are doing inspiring things with POV these days. It’s really in the air. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, John Banville’s The Infinities, Paul Auster’s Invisible. Claire Messud, in The Emperor’s Children, does a classic omniscient third–or is it implied first-person plural?
If you’re interested in discussing that question and others, check out Rebecca’s 4-week craft series workshop, “Enhance Your POV.” In addition to discussing authors who do it well, you’ll be encouraged to try your hand at employing some bold and daring POVs. Recommended for all fictioneers and a few bold essayists (a la Itell).