This is a monthly column on the writing process. Topics will range from books and authors to writing conferences and workshops to the writing process itself.
Points of View: An Anthology of Short Stories. James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny. Mentor. ISBN 0-451-62872-1.
This seminal work is not just a collection of short stories, but a collection of short stories arranged according to specific points of view. Particularly valuable are the editors' explanations of the various narrative techniques and how they work to tell a story.
The book was a recommended text for one of the workshops at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival this summer. And, if you'll pardon the cliche, it belongs on every serious writer's bookshelf.
The anthology is structured according to degrees of involvement - from the most-involved to the least-involved narrator. The first stories are "A Telephone Call" by Dorothy Parker and "I Stand Here Ironing" by Tillie Olsen, examples of interior monologue, and go all the way to examples of anonymous narration or no character point of view in "A New Window Display" by Nicholosa Mohr, "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson and "Powerhouse" by Eudora Welty.
Like all anthologies, I found some of my favorite stories. Probably my most favorite was "Sinking House" by T.C. Boyle, a graduate of both the Iowa Writers Workshop and the Iowa doctoral English program where he did his dissertation in Victorian Studies. "Sinking House" uses a dual point of view - Muriel who falls into such a depression when her husband passes that she turns on every faucet in the house and leaves them on, contrasted by the point of view of her neighbors.
This story is a great example of how Boyle uses multiple points of view to develop tension in a story. We as readers are able to anticipate events of which the characters are unaware, simply because we are privy to the thoughts, actions and feelings of other characters in the story.
"The Bridle" is a very uncharacteristic and moving story by Raymond Carver told through memoir or observer narration. Carver tells an emotional story of how a farm family is displaced into homelessness and the only possession they retain to remember the homeplace is a bridle.
Point of view in fiction
This brings to mind a couple discussions I've had this year regarding shifting point of view, first in an online writing class and later at the Summer Writing Festival this June.
First, here's a short piece I wrote for the online writing class:
After the battle, after the smoke had cleared, after the screams had ended and before the groans and cries began, he picked himself up and walked to the ridge. To the left, blue uniforms lay scattered in lumps, heaps, the officers carefully lifted like religious icons, the enlisted piled like cordwood for burial in mass graves. To the right, Confederate church women picked up all the dead, aided by old men and young boys as they laid each body - officer and enlisted - on each wagon as though all were sacred, all were gods, all had descended from the sky to carry out the Lord's work.
A singing began - from which side he couldn't tell - but it was a singing nevertheless that could have begun from either side - Yankee or Reb. It was a singing that carried over the ridge - the ridge of differences, of philosophies, of ideas, of politics - but not of faiths. It was a singing that was picked up by the other side - part New England Presbyterian, part Southern Baptist, part Negro spiritual. The singing grew louder and louder and louder so it seemed as though even the dead bodies sang.
The singing was in their blood even - White blood, Black blood, maybe even a little Indian blood if you looked long and hard enough - blood that trickled in rivulets from the Northern side, from the Southern side, until it formed puddles, overflowing puddles that became brooks then streams then rivers, Northern blood to the Rappahannock, Southern to the Rapidan, now holy rivers flowing violet and golden and mauve depending on which side you stood - facing the sun or your back to it - rivers that carried their blood with their song, the blood singing it, the blood praising it. The song was the blood and the blood was the song as the two rivers passed the ridge then joined - Northern blood and Southern blood now no longer Northern nor Southern and Yankee blood and Rebel blood no longer Yankee nor Reb but one blood, one beautiful, shining, singing blood that gathered its own energy - coursing, gaining speed, joining other bloody rivers, neither Northern nor Southern, till they reached the Chesapeake then the great, sad, gray Atlantic in one, glorious song.
Okay. Now the other students in the class loved it - until the instructor said she had a problem with point of view. She seemed to believe that I should break up the third-person limited (told through one person's eyes only at a time) and omniscient (the way God would see it) points of view.
Well, I didn't want to. And I still don't think I would want to.
The whole point of the piece was to show the power of the individual imagination. A transcendental experience, if you will, of how the individual can leave and re-enter his or her consciousness at will, shifting between the individual perspective and the universal experience. Walt Whitman did it in his poetry all the time.
Here's another paragraph from my novel "Doomsday" that caused some discussion at a workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival:
Such were his thoughts as Big D came even closer now, a mere yard away. And then the eternal fluorescent lights flickered several seconds, and dimmed. Every door, every cell, every gate in the prison unlocked, their fail-safe mechanisms thwarted, some unknown force reversing the wishes of the victims and the prosecutors, the judges and the warden, the guards and the parole board . . . (And if you've read the novel you know why I stopped here.)
The whole point of that paragraph was to shift the point of view from the prisoner's limited third-person point of view to the universal consciousness. I wouldn't have written it any differently then and I wouldn't write it any differently now.
Think of it as a movie camera moving from a broad panning perspective into the individual consciousness then out again. I think it works.
Here's how one of my favorite writers, Jack Kerouac, does it in his novel "The Town and the City":
From The Town and The City
The Town is Galloway. The Merrimac River, broad and placid, flows down to it from the New Hampshire hills, broken at the falls to make frothy havoc on the rocks, foaming on over ancient stone towards a place where the river suddenly swings about in a wide and peaceful basin, moving on now around the flank of the town, on to places known as Lawrence and Haverhill, through a wooded valley, and on to the sea at plum Island, where the river enters an infinity of waters and is gone. Somewhere far north of Galloway, in headwaters close to Canada, the river is continually fed and made to brim out of endless sources and unfathomable springs.
The little children of Galloway sit on the banks of the Merrimac and consider these facts and mysteries. In the wild echoing misty March night, little Mickey Martin kneels at his bedroom window and listens to the river's rush, the distant barking of dogs, the soughing thunder of the falls, and he ponders the wellsprings and sources of his own mysterious life.
The grownups of Galloway are less concerned with riverside broodings. They work - in factories, in shops and stores and offices, and on the farms all around. The textile factories built in brick, primly towered, solid, are ranged along the river and the canals, and all night the industries hum and shuttle. This is Galloway, milltown in the middle of fields and forests.
Note how Kerouac's first and third paragraphs are clearly omniscient - as God would see things. But something very interesting happens in the second paragraph when our wide pan shot tightens first to the little children then inside little Mickey Martin's mind. We hear the river and dogs and falls along with Mickey and we know his innermost thoughts as he ponders his own life.
Poets & Writers magazine
If I had a choice of one magazine, this would be it. Poets & Writers is geared toward people who probably have a degree in English and are anticipating entering an MFA (master's in fine arts) writing program or who are practicing writers.
I've subscribed to the magazine for some time, and while I used to find it somewhat snooty, it seems to have come down to earth a little bit with some pretty practical tips for writers.
The July-August issue featured an interview with James Lee Burke who is somewhat genre oriented - crime, mystery and thriller.
The latest issue also offers some pretty hard-hitting everyday advice from literary agent P.J. Mark:
"And very few writers can support themselves completely independently from their writing. That's because of the nature of payout on a book contract. Even a very lucrative book contract is paid off over the course of two years, and when you're taking 40 percent of that money to pay an agent and pay taxes, you are working with a very small margin. I do have writers who are fortunate enough to be able to survive on their writing. But most writers are not able to do that."
Just to give you an example how right Mark is, T.C. Boyle teaches at USC and Joyce Carol Oates teaches at Princeton.
Interestingly, fiction writing is one of the few occupations in which you can be psychotically delusional and still fit in with the crowd. Everyone wants to hit the top 10 of the New York Times bestseller list. But there are only 10 spots there.
Michael Tidemann's author page is available at: amazon.com/author/michaeltidemann. You can also read his work in the Boston-based online literary magazine, www.thewriteplaceatthewritetime.org/fiction