Dear Writergirl: Point of View

Dear Writergirl,
I’m stuck in my novel
and don’t know what to do. Do you have a few minutes to listen to my obsessive
chatter? I’m almost finished. In fact I’m on my last chapter. But the whole
time I’ve been writing I haven’t been sure if the book should be
written it in first- or third-person. It’s in first-person now. The books
and characters and scenes come to me in first-person. It flows as I’m writing.
I see it in first-person, if that makes sense.
Yet, and perhaps it’s
insecurity or perhaps all those voices from grad school (“Never, never
write in first-person,”), but a few weeks ago I changed the first chapter
to third-person and it does sound more sophisticated and literary, and it does
give me more freedom to portray (and see) the other characters from different
and more complex angles. Yet it’s a different book. By merely changing it from
first- to third-person, the whole focus of the book changes. Is this a good
thing? I dunno.
Has this ever happened
to you? I’m embarrassed to admit that I am agonizing over this. In fact, I
barely slept last night. I kept printing the first chapter out in first-person,
then third. Then I’d make minor changes and print it out in both again. And
again. Get the picture? Anyway, thanks for listening. Probably there is no
right answer. Probably I could write it both ways and it would work. Maybe I’m
just afraid to finish it?
Shifting and Sleepless

Dear Shifting,
My first semester at college, I signed up for Phil 101,
Intro to Philosophy. Paunchy and short with shaggy gray hair, the prof would
stare off here and there, what you’d expect I guess from a philosophy guy, a
little distracted. But when he spoke, you could tell that he cared, and he
wanted us to care, twirpy little freshmen that we were.
This guy had no business teaching an introductory
philosophy class. He was William H. Gass, philosopher, essayist, fiction
writer.  National Book Critics Circle,
American Book Award, that sort of thing.
“I was alone with all that could happen,” my Phi 101 prof wrote
in his short story “The Peterson Kid.” Jammed into that lecture hall, we were a
bunch of eighteen-year-olds willing to do pretty much anything to prove that we
weren’t really alone. Every one of us thought we were smart. It was too
horrible to entertain any other option. I have no idea how many others went on
as I did, making out of all that could happen some of the stupidest choices
imaginable, which for me meant dropping out of that college where William Gass
taught introductory philosophy.
What’s both thrilling and horrifying is that we writers get
to choose again and again: what to write, how to write, whether to finish. We
are every day alone with all that could happen.
The second week of class, Bill Gass patiently explained to
us the Socratic concept of forms. If Plato was right, that pillow on which you toss
and turn, Shifting and Sleepless, is but a poor imitation of the true Pillow
that exists somewhere beyond the material realm. If he’s right, the novel over
which you have debated and worried and cried cannot, despite your best efforts,
ever be the true, ideal novel you aim for.
Not that this should stop you from trying. I believe you
know this already, Shifting. You sense what your novel could be, and you’re not
about to let the possibility of a wrong turn or two steer you from the hard
work of getting as close as you can to its truest, best place. Though you want
to run like hell and never look back, you’ll stay alone with all that could
happen, and you’ll finish that book.
You must silence those voices from grad school. They mean
well, really they do, but they don’t know this one particular novel of which
you can be the one and only author. You, who’ve turned circles in its messy
middle and looked out on all the ways it could go. You don’t really care about
sounding sophisticated and literary, love, and you shouldn’t. You must be true
to the book, nothing more.
You say there’s more freedom in the third person to see and
portray your characters from complex angles. I say we writers have a whole lot
more freedom than most of us dare to lay claim to, so much that it’s downright
scary, which is why at 4 am you’re pacing the floor as your printer is spewing
out pages, some saying “I” and some saying “she,” while your imperfect but
nevertheless alluring pillow lies empty. First person can be complex. Third
person can be shallow. You can get so close in third that you’re breathing
along with your character, and in first you can pull so far back that the
reader despairs of ever having known the character at all. It’s thrilling,
really, all that can happen, if we allow it.
What you want to know is how to find your way, the best way,
the truest way for this story. The book came to you in first person. Does this
mean that first person is its best form, the means by which others will come to
care deeply about your characters, as you clearly do? Not necessarily. The
voice could be only the way in, the entrance to Plato’s cave, as my Phil 101
prof would have it. Inside, there are only shadows thrown by the fire. You have
to feel your way, trusting and trusting and trusting. You know yourself to be
unreliable, but you trust anyhow, because despite all the voices with their
well-meaning rules about not writing in first person and sounding literary and
all that, it’s your story, love, and you know it better than anyone.
Sure, the book could work both ways. It could work fifteen
ways, or fifteen hundred. The rules, the never,
you learned in grad school, those aren’t so much flashlights as
speed bumps, so you’ll you ask the right questions, and this you are doing.
What you can trust is yourself, and the book, a book you
will finish, dearest, because this story owns you. That comes through in every
line of your letter. And short of perfection, that’s the best we can hope for.
Truly yours,
Send your questions on writing, publishing, life, love, or anything else to

1 thought on “Dear Writergirl: Point of View”

  1. Left me breathless… do get to the point writergirl (whoever you are behind this supergreat pseudo)–I want to pace my sentences like you do, but most of all I want to know what you know after grad school (I got useless stuff)…

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