Friday, August 5, 2011

Can I Believe Your Story? First-Person POV

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach.

• This I believe (“A Public Dialogue about Belief--One Story at a Time,” NPR)
I think; therefore, I am. (Descartes)
I feel pretty / Oh so pretty / I feel pretty and witty and bright (“I Feel Pretty,” West Side Story)
• In my opinion, the first person point of view (POV, hereafter) comes naturally to most of us.
• Why can’t we all just get along? (Rodney King)
I think I speak for all of us. (DemocraticUnderground, et al)

The words in bold font above are words typically read in a first person account whether it is fiction or non-fiction. The pronouns I and its plural form, we; possessive forms my and mine; and an objective plural form, us characterize the first person POV.

Many authors who have used the first person POV and snippets from a few of their works appear below. Note the pronouns in use.

In the days after that bone scan, I couldn’t find a hopeful way out . . . . I did manage to imagine uplifting conversations I might have with my daughters about how it was O.K. for me to die this time, as it absolutely had not been when they were four and seven, and I had foreseen their adoring but occasionally absent-minded father getting them the wrong kind of sneakers or losing track of their dental appointments after I was gone. Now I was sure that I had told them everything of importance I knew; they had understood it all and figured out a lot on their own, and were as close to perfect as they could possibly be. Then it occurred to me that neither of them was married yet, and I would hate to miss the weddings and the grandchildren. I speculated about which of my friends I would assign to help them pick out their wedding dresses. Then I cried and decided that I really wanted to stay around. (Alice Trillin writing for the New Yorker in 1990, excerpted and reprinted in About Alice by Calvin Trillin, 59-60)

I’ve seen things they’ll never know about. I saw a family of weaver birds work together for months on a nest that became such a monstrous lump of sticks and progeny and nonsense that finally it brought their whole tree thundering down. I didn’t speak of it to my husband or children, not ever. So you see. I have my own story, and increasingly in my old age it weighs on me. Now that every turn in the weather whistles an ache through my bones, I stir in bed and the memories rise out of me like a buzz of flies from a carcass. I crave to be rid of them, but find myself being careful, too, choosing which ones to let out into the light. I want you to find me innocent. As much as I’ve craved your lost, small body, I want you now to stop stroking my inner arms at night with your fingertips. Stop whispering. I’ll live or die on the strength of your judgment, but first let me say who I am. Let me claim that Africa and I kept company for a while and then parted ways, as if we were both party to relations with a failed outcome. Or say I was afflicted with Africa like a bout of a rare disease, from which I have not managed a full recovery. Maybe I’ll even confess the truth, that I rode in with the horsemen and beheld the apocalypse, but still I’ll insist I was only a captive witness. What is the conqueror’s wife, if not a conquest herself? (Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible, 8-9)

I tried left, then right, but kept striking rock. The frost feathers holding me up, it became apparent, were maybe five inches thick and had the structural integrity of stale corn bread. Below was thirty-seven hundred feet of air, and I was balanced on a house of cards. The sour taste of panic rose in my throat. My eyesight blurred, I began to hyperventilate, my calves started to shake. I shuffled a few feet farther to the right, hoping to find thicker ice, but managed only to bend an ice ax on the rock. (Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild, 143)

The first and third passages by Trillin and Krakauer are from non-fiction works, the first a memoir or extended eulogy in honor of the wife he loved dearly. The second is an analytical book mostly about Chris McCandless, a boy who left his worldly goods, family and friends behind to walk into Alaska. He dared the wilderness and lost as did several others, including Krakauer, but not all lost their lives in doing so.

The second passage is a novel I have referenced often. Kingsolver’s method in The Poisonwood Bible and another of her novels, Prodigal Summer, is to tell her story from the first-person points of view of several different characters. In doing so, we often learn about the same event as seen through the filters of very different personalities and life experiences.

In addition, Kingsolver’s narrative using multiple narrators overcomes one of the deficiencies of the first-person POV: narrator reliability. Just as you may doubt the truth of a story when someone tells it to you, readers may doubt the first-person narrator. How many facts did the narrator add or delete in order to make himself look reasonable and good? How much did the narrator alter the truth in order to present himself as he would like others to see him? With multiple witnesses, each telling the same story, we can sift through the evidence and language to discover the truth.

Or can we? That is one of the tricks that mystery and thriller writers use, and it’s a fact that detectives will share. In any given moment at any crime or accident, multiple witnesses will provide sometimes wildly different versions of the same event. What detectives seek is some consistency or at least a common thread weaving through all the versions that will allow them to discern what actually happened.

Robert Browning used this technique of multiple points of view to present an account of a triple murder and subsequent trial in Rome, 1698. Ten different speakers provide accounts in The Ring and the Book, and Browning leaves the reader to judge the guilt or innocence of Count Guido Franceschini for himself. In “My Last Duchess” as well as several other shorter dramatic monologue poems, Browning uses the same technique, allowing the speaker to tell his own story and readers to judge the true nature of the speaker’s character.

Reading Challenge

Read a classic novel, The Catcher in the Rye, for which J. D. Salinger created a first-person narrator, Holden Caulfield, or read any of the other works used as examples in this post.

Writing Challenge:

Turn to your writing journals. Read selected entries. Have you used first-person point of view to tell your personal stories? If so, tell the same story from another point of view as if your story belongs to someone else. If you already use third-person, telling stories about characters and not from a personal POV, then rewrite one to use first person.

Next Week: Third-person POV

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM)

A common writing error is to shift points of view without reason or logic. We often do this when conversing with friends and peers, when our language use is less formal and exact.

Many of these shifts involve GUM errors. Here is an example of an inconsistent shift in POV and an explanation of why it is inappropriate.

o The dream really frightened me. You run for your life in the dream and fight to wake up. Everyone does the same, don't they? This example features all three narrative points of view:
o One person (I) had a bad dream.
o Then, the speaker shifts abruptly to second person (you), generalizing about the experience of dreaming.
o Finally, the speaker generalizes further by making his experience universal with the third person (everyone).
o When reading the three statements, it is not clear if the dreamer dreamed the frightening dream or heard about a frightening dream in which someone runs for his life and fights to wake up.
o And that’s the problem with shifting POVs; the writer has failed to be clear.