Tag Archives: voice

Pick a Narrator

In any work of fiction or creative non-fiction there is a narrative voice, a central consciousness to relate the parts that can’t be witnessed first hand through scene. This narrative voice is what we call Point of View or POV and who your narrator is will be one of the most important decisions you’ll make.

You have three choices:

                        1st Person                       

                        2nd Person                        

                        3rd Person

Every story has a narrator even if the story is, according to Alice LaPlant, “ being told by an invisible and bodiless intelligence which never personally enters the story as a character, and which appears to be godlike in its scope of knowledge.” But please, don’t assume this voice is the author! When the author’s voice, or POV, enters the story, it’s called author intrusion—something we want to avoid. In fiction, the narrator is different from the author. The author writes the words but the narrator is the intelligence that is telling the story. The author controls the narrator, but that doesn’t make the author synonymous with the narrator.

There’s a big difference between a fiction narrator and a creative non-fiction narrator. In creative non-fiction, the author and the narrator are the same. No writing convention exists to differentiate these voices.

Think about it. If the narrator of your short story were I, the author, the work would be non-fiction!

First Person

The narrative is told by an actual character: I. That character can be a participant in the action or merely an observer of the action who tells about it, like Nick in the Great Gatsby. He was smitten with the glamorous Jay Gatsby next door and tells Gatsby’s and his cousin Daisy’s story. But ultimately the story is about Nick.

That’s the rub. The story is always about who we are primarily focused on. Even when there is a detached first person narrating, it’s going to be that person’s story. This is a convention you can count on.

Another first person option is the plural first person: We. This isn’t very common, but it isn’t unheard of either. Check out William Falkner’s A Rose for Emily.

Second Person

Second person is complex and rare. The narrator is You. But the “you” is really “I”, usually because “you” has disassociated from the unpleasant thoughts of “I” as found in Jay McIrney’s Bright Lights, Big City. Another possibility is that you is really another character and the piece is a monolog addressed to someone. Or the you addresses the reader as in Lorrie Moore’s How to be a Writer.

Third Person

Third Person is the most complex and requires a discussion in its own post. Tune back in next week to learn why the 3rd person isn’t a fixed voice, but a continuum of possible voices limited only by the number of authors using it.

Assignment: pick a story, your own or someone else’s. Identify the major characters. Who is the point of view character? Rewrite a scene from another POV in the first person. Is the story different? Is the meaning changed? Read your original and re-write in class.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Point of View

Expose Yourself for Art

This morning I awoke from a disturbing dream: I had left my MAC with some friends in a computer lab in Mexico City and needed to communicate. When I finally made it across the city, I found my equipment disconnected and not where I left it. The attendant of the computer room turned out to be Fernando, one of my Spanish teachers from the language school I’d attended in Mexico City. Fernando had been a sweet, easy-going fellow. In my dream, he had turned manipulative and controlling. He spoke politely, I had committed some error and I was not going to use a computer, and no way was I going to collect and carry away my own equipment. In fact, he planned to take it—he wanted to suppress my voice. I woke up frustrated and feeling very vulnerable. I haven’t thought of Fernando in eighteen years. What could this possibly mean?

I turned to my journal, wrote down everything I could remember about the dream and assessed everything I was feeling. As Julia Cameron says, “Writing it out, I stepped back to safety. Writing it out, I experienced my vulnerability and used it to find strength.” As I wrote something shifted. I left my morning pages feeling positive and ready to face the day.

But that isn’t all. I began to uncover meaning. I’m not in Mexico, and I don’t have connection to people from my school anymore except through my memory and my writing, but I’ve got the right to speak! Don’t I? I used Amber Lea Starfire’s prompt #6 under the chapter, Authenticity, in Week by Week to explore my feelings: Free write for ten minutes about the fears you have about doing what you think you’d love to do. What might happen? Is it okay to be happy? Why or why not? Write about the worst and best that could happen….

In my memoir, Saints and Skeletons, I’m talking about some things that some people, including me, may not want to share with the world. I’m writing about things that make me vulnerable, but that’s good. If I write from a place of vulnerability, I’ll be speaking honestly. I will practice in my journal. The journal will allow me to break out of my patterns and create myself in a new way, using the vulnerability and honest talk as a tool to describe my life and direct it. I’ll clear out some of the brush that hides the truth about me and my life—in this case, about my life in Mexico. I’ll use the journal to make myself brave enough to stand up to the Fernandos of the world, and tell it like it was, openly and compassionately when I get to the ‘for publication’ pages.

I’m discovering that as I write to my vulnerabilities, I make myself more transparent—to myself—and more open to what it is to be human on earth now. In a way, I’m developing a greater depth of compassion for myself through journaling, a compassion that spills over to my fellow humans (I never lacked animal compassion!) Julia claims that if she writes it, she begins to practice it, and ‘it’ is more empathy for people—a fine skill for a writer to embrace.

The idea of writing from a place of vulnerability can be frightening. It can leave the writer exposed and uncomfortable. I’m no different but I’ve noticed that once I write about something and let it go, I don’t own it any more, or maybe in the writing, I’ve dialed down my vulnerability and I don’t feel so uncomfortable. Maybe it’s easier when I remember that I want to express myself, and to do that I must poke around inside to find out what I feel and why. Practicing in my journal is my first step to creating the art I want Saints and Skeletons to be. I can embarrass myself, contradict myself, and change my mind in long hand until I find my authentic, honest voice. Then I can take it to the computer, yes, the confiscated MAC, and imbue my work with my tender, vulnerable heart. Fernando won’t be able to take that away.

Class prompt: Julia Cameron’s Honesty Initiation Tool from The Right to Write

I call this tool the “Flashlight.” Putting things in black and white gives us a flashlight to find our way through the gray. We begin by honestly asking questions. We answer until we arrive at honest answers. The writing itself is the clue to when we are on the right trail. When we are writing honestly, the writing heats up and we can feel that. When we get cold feet about the truth, our prose goes cold as well. The we need to pry the icy surface and see what we can dig up. We can try sentences like:
“If I let myself admit it, I…”
“If it weren’t so risky, I’d…”
“If it didn’t scare me, I…”
“If it weren’t so stupid, I’d…”
Under the surface we find our conflicting feelings, the “yes” and “no,” the “I love him but…” specificity of emotional honesty. We can trick ourselves by word games into self-disclosure when we are stymied:
What animal is he?
What season is it?
What kind of music?
What food?
Using language, there are a hundred different ways to excavate our buried truths, to arrive at our difficult knowings.
“If it weren’t so threatening, I’d admit…”
“If I let myself know it I feel…”
“If I let myself feel it I should…”
“If I let myself entertain the thought, I should…”
“I’m not ready yet, but eventually I need to…”
Any of these gentle prods moves us closer to honesty. When we arrive at internal honesty, internal clarity, it becomes far easier to take external actions. It is a matter of breaking down actions into very small, do-able increments. The page is an ideal place for lists, for brainstorming, for venting and inventing.

Assignment for class: Work with Julia’s prompt. Focus on some unresolved anger. After you’ve asked and answered your questions and feel you have a grasp of this anger, write a rant! It may be a song, poem, short fiction, personal memoir, or a scene in you current project. How much energy, honesty, and vulnerability can you pack into your rant? Bring it to class and let us hear your vulnerable, honest voice.

1 Comment

Filed under The Writing Practice