P Is for Point of View

When you’re blogging A to Z about writing and editing, P, like C, offers a dizzying array of options: place, placement, paragraph, period, periodical, prose, poetry, parallelism, proofreading, page, point of view, parenthesis, person, persona, present tense, past tense, prize,  production, project, projection, picture, photograph, pronoun, pseudonym . . .

Gay Head Cliffs

This is what I see when I think “point of view”: a vantage point from which you can see a lot but there’s a lot you don’t know. These are the Gay Head Cliffs, where a crucial scene takes place late in my novel in progress.

I settled on point of view (POV) because it’s playing a significant role in Wolfie, my novel in progress. Wolfie has two POV characters: Shannon, an artist and graphic designer in her 50s; and Glory, an artistically gifted sixth-grader who loves dogs. I’m writing both in what’s called a limited or close third-person POV, meaning that each character’s scenes are shown through her eyes and first-person pronouns appear only in dialogue.

In omniscient third-person the usually disembodied narrator knows everything, including what’s going on in people’s heads. A couple of times while in Shannon’s head I’ve caught myself writing something that boils down to “Little did she know . . .” This suggests either some form of omniscience or that Shannon is looking back at these particular events from some point in the future.

In a previous draft I started to write Shannon’s first chapter as if she already knew what was going to happen, or at least most of it, but this didn’t ring true to me so I jettisoned this approach. In the novel, Shannon and eventually other characters are feeling their way toward a piece of knowledge — a secret or a mystery, if you will — and because of the nature of that knowledge they can’t afford to be wrong.

“Hindsight is always 20-20,” so the saying goes, and for Shannon to know too much too soon would undercut the uncertainty that is driving the story. The other thing is that I still don’t know how the story ends. If Shannon knows and is holding back on me, I’m going to be pissed.

Only one person knows the secret and he’s not speaking to me, Shannon, or Glory. What Glory knows is buried deep in her subconscious; she has no words for it. Shannon is growing uneasy, but in the absence of clear evidence she fears she is projecting from her own childhood experience and her work as an adult sheltering and advocating for abused women. So without words or clear evidence how do I figure it out and convey it all to my readers?

As it turns out, my two limited-POV characters were giving me clues before I caught on to what they were doing. In giving Glory an aptitude for drawing and an interest in web design, I was cleverer than I knew. Clues appear indirectly in the actions and occasionally words of the characters, but the most direct clues come in the form of images, some created by the characters and some drawn from the story. (For more about where images come from, see my 2014 blog post “Grow Your Images.”)

In writing it so often happens that limitations foster ingenuity. A length limit can impose focus on prose that wants to sprawl. The discipline of rhyme and meter forces the poet to pay attention to the sound and placement of each word, to make each word count. (Prose writers can learn a lot from writing and reading poetry.) And in Wolfie the limitations imposed by the incomplete knowledge of my two POV characters are stretching me as a writer and helping me find new ways to tell a story.

The Importance of Place

The Gay Head Cliffs, seen from the observation area.

The Gay Head Cliffs, seen from the observation area.

Two days before the late January snow fell, I drove all the way to Aquinnah to see the Gay Head Cliffs. My Alaskan malamute, Travvy, rode shotgun, his nose usually as far out the window as it could get.

In the Forester’s back seat were two of my characters, protagonist Shannon and her long-estranged sister Jackie. Shannon’s in her mid-fifties. Jackie’s three years younger. They survived their violently alcoholic family in different ways, Shannon by fleeing, Jackie by sticking it out. After almost four decades of minimal contact, it’s Thanksgiving weekend and Jackie has come for a visit.

I live on, and write about, Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts. Martha’s Vineyard is famous, not least because the president and one of his recent predecessors vacation here. I write about the place and the people who are still here when the celebrities leave.

Gay Head light

The Gay Head lighthouse. In a major engineering feat last fall it was moved 129 feet back from the cliff that was eroding out from under it.

The Gay Head Cliffs are celebrities in their own right, celebrities who never leave. People who know nothing else about Martha’s Vineyard have seen them in photographs. Shannon, like me and many another year-round resident, is somewhat jaded about both celebrities and tourist attractions, but she’s showing her sister around and it’s late November: no chattering crowds, ample places to park.

At this point I realized that my mental image of the cliffs looked like a picture postcard. I hadn’t been there in years. I couldn’t remember the path down to the beach or what the beach looked like. Hence this mid-January expedition. I kept my eyes on the road, occasionally scratched Travvy’s back, and listened to Shannon and Jackie talking in the back seat.

After I parked the car — there was no shortage of available space — we walked past the silent summer shops and up to the observation area. Shannon and Jackie leaned on the post-and-rail fence. Shannon pointed out over the water. “That’s Devil’s Bridge,” she said. “Major hazard to navigation.”

Jackie shaded her eyes against the sun and squinted. “I can’t see anything,” she replied.

“Neither can the ships,” said Shannon.

Most Vineyard people know about the wreck of the City of Columbusa passenger steamship bound from Boston to Savannah. It ran aground on Devil’s Bridge, a submerged rocky shoal, in the dark early hours of January 18, 1884, and quickly sank. Despite heroic rescue efforts that morning by the Gay Headers and the crew of a passing vessel, 104 died; only 29 were rescued.

The anniversary had just passed when we drove to Aquinnah, so it was on my mind, but when Shannon said “Neither can the ships,” I froze. Rescue is a major theme in my novel in progress, starting with the rescue of Wolfie, the title character, who was inspired by (you guessed it) Travvy — rescue and the difficulty of recognizing threats before it’s too late. And there it was, arising naturally and unobtrusively from the place where my characters stood.

Every story, remembered or made-up, takes place somewhere. Where it takes place affects what takes place, deeply, profoundly, deeply, indelibly. Characters, both fictional and nonfictional, are deeply affected by where they are and where they’ve come from. Images, characters, and whole plots grow out of the soil they take root in.

Regional writing, writing deeply rooted in place, sometimes gets a bad rap. Regional writing is only about that region, so the thinking goes. It’s not universal. (If this reminds you of the equally popular notion that writing about women is only about women, and writing about people of color is only about people of color, while writing about white men is universal — it should.)

If William Blake could “see a World in a Grain of Sand,” writers can find a whole world in a particular place, and readers can learn more about their world from following a writer’s words into places they’ve never been.

For another take on where imagery comes from, check out my earlier blog post “Grow Your Images.”

Trav on path

The path to Moshup’s Beach is a lot longer and wider than I remembered. That’s my sidekick, Travvy, waiting for me to put the camera away and keep walking.

Moshup's Beach

Once I realized how rocky the beach was, it was easier to hear what Shannon and Jackie were saying as they picked their way over the rocks.

Logjam

For the last week or so I’ve been writing around a logjam in the novel, nudging at it from time to time but not trying to break it up.

This is a log pile, not a logjam, but you get the idea.

This is a log pile, not a logjam, but you get the idea.

Imagine logs massing where the river widens, jostling each other to fit through a narrow gap and float on downstream. These logs aren’t wide around like tree trunks, or all that long either. They’re small enough to fit in your woodstove or fireplace, but that’s big enough to create a logjam.

Morning is my writing time, from whenever I get out of bed till 9 or so. The novel was jammed, but I kept writing. You may have noticed that my bloggish output has increased in the last week.

It's hard to take a selfie of me and Trav walking, so here are our shadows.

It’s hard to take a selfie of me and Trav walking, so here are our shadows.

Images and ideas, scenes and snatches of dialogue, often come to me when I’m out walking with Travvy. Forward motion is all the more important when the novel is stuck, so this is where I did most of my nudging.

But “nudging” isn’t really the right word. What I was doing was listening — listening to Shannon, one of my viewpoint characters, listen to what’s going in her head. It’s pretty cacophonous: much has happened in the last 24 hours, and her own childhood has been pounding on a long-locked door. I knew what she was going to do next, but I didn’t know how she was going to get there.

This morning when I sat down in my chair, Shannon was waiting. Pixel, her old dog, was curled up next to her on the sofa. Wolfie, her recently rescued younger dog, was stretched out on the rug. The November sun has long since set; the living room is dark except for the power lights on her computer monitors, the red “on” light on the coffeemaker in the kitchen — and the blinking red light on the answering machine. The message was playing when she walked in the door half an hour earlier. It’s her younger sister, with whom she’s had little contact in 30 years. She’s about to listen to the message and return the call.

That’s the log that jostled itself loose from the jam, slipped through the gap, and started on down the river. The rest of the logs will follow in good time.

When Trav and I headed out for our walk, this song was running through my head. Different kind of logjam, very different solution, but you get the idea. Slaid Cleaves singing his “Breakfast in Hell.” Now that’s a story.

 

Titles

No, not job titles or aristocratic titles or even the title to my finally paid-off Forester that arrived in the mail a few weeks ago.

Titles of stories, novels, essays . . . especially the title of a piece I posted to my other blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, yesterday morning. The post was ready to go except for the blank box at the top where the title was supposed to go.

That blank box was staring at me.

Some titles come easy. Not this one, but I was more than ready to go walking with my dog. I typed “Rootless” in the blank box, hit Publish, gave it one last read-through for typos, and logged off.

This oak was felled by Hurricane Irene in 2011. For three years it leafed out lying down.

This oak was felled by Hurricane Irene in 2011. For three years it leafed out lying down.

“Rootless” wasn’t a bad title. The blog post is about two different trees, a birch and an oak, that I pass often on my walks. Both trees were felled by storms, the oak by a 2011 hurricane, the birch by one of this past winter’s blizzards. Both remained partly attached to their trunks, and both continued to leaf out after they fell. Both have since been severed from their roots. One is dying, the other dead.

As I walked, another title came to me: “Two Downed Trees.” Bingo.

The winter of 2015 severed the oak's trunk. Its leafing days are over.

The winter of 2015 severed the oak’s trunk. Its leafing days are over.

It’s nice when that happens.

Some titles come easy. Others come hard. Some don’t come at all — you have to go looking for them.

When titles come early, they often help shape the story. The epigraph for my first novel, The Mud of the Place, gave the novel its title and kept me honest while I was writing it. It’s a remark by the late Grace Paley (1922–2007), a wonderful poet, fiction writer, and political activist.

“If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place,” she said in an interview, “you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

I added some literal mud to the novel so readers wouldn’t be disappointed.

Novel #2, in progress, needed a working title so I could stop referring to it as “my current project” or “the novel I’m working on.” I started calling it Wolfie, after one of the main characters, a dog. That may turn out to be the actual title. Who knows? It’s definitely the one to beat.

The novel on the back burner has been The Squatters’ Speakeasy almost since it first flickered into my mind. This is the project that stalled out because of its “surfeit of subplots,” one of which has to do with a bunch of musicians and artists who take over a trophy house and turn it into, well, a sort of speakeasy. I love the title. Trouble is, as the novel bubbles along on the back burner, the speakeasy subplot is fading into the background. I don’t know what the main plots and themes will turn out to be. Will they include a squatters’ speakeasy? Damned if I know — yet.

So where do your titles come from? Do they come easy, or do they come hard? How do you know when you’ve got a good one?

Leave your comments here. If you’re shy, feel free to use the handy-dandy form below. Seriously — you don’t have to be shy to use the form, and it doesn’t have to be about titles either.

 

 

Clichés, Ruts & Envelopes

A creative writing teacher at San Jose State used to say about clichés: “Avoid them like the plague.” Then he’d laugh at his own joke. The class laughed along with him, but I always thought clichés got a bum rap. Because, often, they’re dead-on. But the aptness of the clichéd saying is overshadowed by the nature of the saying as a cliché.

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Yes, I thought when I encountered this passage, in part because the cliché Hosseini’s narrator, Amir, was considering is one I find useful: the elephant in the living room, the huge hulking truth that dominates a situation even though, and because, no one in the vicinity acknowledges its existence. When I first heard it, the image was being used to describe the experience of living with an alcoholic. Not only did it ring true to my own experience, it made me think harder about it. Clichés do not make you stop and think. Quite the contrary: they enable you to blow past something without thinking too hard.

My yes was full of admiration, because Hosseini deftly manages to bring the clichéd image back to life by walking around it with a thoughtful eye. So readers will do likewise — or at least this reader did.

Cliché, interestingly enough, comes from the print trade. Originally, says Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged, it meant “a stereotype or electrotype; especially :  a single stamp of which a number are joined to form a plate for printing a whole sheet of stamps at once.” It’s come, not surprisingly, to mean a phrase, expression, image, theme, or plot whose power has been diminished by overuse.

But as Hosseini’s narrator reminds us, the phrase must have started off useful. Would have been overused otherwise?

Many clichés are phrases that have fallen into ruts. Several words fuse into one: we hear “liketheplague,” not “like the plague,” and how many of us have firsthand experience with plagues anyway? When phrases come adrift from their original, literal meanings, spelling errors frequently result. If you remember that the “rein” in “free rein” is attached to a horse’s bridle, you won’t write of giving “free reign” to your creativity. Likewise the “bridle” in “unbridled passion” — though “unbridaled passion” might come in handy if you know what you’re doing.

And no, you don’t have to have to have firsthand experience with horses to understand where these phrases come from. My experience with elephants is negligible, and I’ve never seen one in a living room, but could I imagine the elephant as representing a huge hulking entity that no one knows how to deal with? Yeah. No problem.

Related to clichés and ruts are what I call “envelope words.” In order to discuss complex situations, concepts, and ideas, we generalize. We have to. Discussions would bog down pretty quickly if we had to describe each concept in detail every time we introduced it. But generalizations quickly become envelopes, and envelopes are opaque: we can’t see what’s in them, and the complexity of all the myriad pieces within is easily forgotten. We mistake the word or words written on the outside of the envelope for the envelope’s contents.

Here’s where knowing your audience(s) becomes important. If your intended audience can be expected to know what’s in the envelope, you don’t have to explain in detail what a given word or concept means. But the more diverse your intended audience — by sex, race, class, generation, culture, religion, place of residence, or any other factor — the less you can take for granted.

Which brings me around to the novel I quoted from at the beginning of this post. Most of The Kite Runner takes place in Afghanistan. When scenes take place in Pakistan or California, Afghanistan is never far away. Thanks to its tragic and bloody recent history, Afghanistan is much in the news. Many of us have stuffed all the visual images and stories into an envelope and labeled it “Afghanistan.”

But as with most news coverage, those stories and images are heavy on war and politics. When war comes to The Kite Runner, readers have already been introduced to life on the ground, to an array of vividly evoked characters and the messy complexities of their intertwined lives. The “Afghanistan” envelope starts to bulge in the middle and maybe split at the seams.

Good writing can do that. It can show readers overused words and concepts in different lights, from different angles. It can reveal the gaps in what we thought we knew. Often it deepens our understanding of the general by focusing on the particular.

 

Details, Details

“The devil’s in the details” — or is it God that’s in the details? God and the devil are always mixing themselves up, but that’s a post for another time, another blog. What matters is that details are important.

For writers, they’re crucial. Whether you write fiction or nonfiction, poetry or plays, details help bring your stories to life. (They can also weigh your story down. We can talk about that some other time.)

Where do details come from? They’re all around you. All you have to do is pay attention.

Four buses in waiting at the West Tisbury School

Four buses in waiting at the West Tisbury School

I was reminded of this yesterday when I posted “Little Changes” to my other blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories. On our walks, my dog and I often follow a trail that skirts the school bus parking lot at the nearby elementary school. Last year four buses parked there. They went away for the summer, but when school resumed earlier this month, there were again four buses in the parking lot.

124 signFrom a distance they looked like the same four buses — not only do school buses look alike, big, long, and bright yellow, but they look a lot like they did when I was a kid back in the Pleistocene. But they weren’t the same buses. Each bus has a number. Last year the regulars were 121, 123, 124, and 117H. This year 124 is back, but with different companions: 125, 126, and 116H.

Close-up of the 116H bus

Close-up of the 116H bus

Finally I got curious about the H. What made 116H and 117H different from their buddies? This wasn’t obvious from a distance either, so I looked more closely.

116H seats fewer kids than the non-H buses — because it leaves room for a wheelchair and has a wheelchair entrance at the back. The H, it seems, stands for “Handy Bus” (so it says on the side of the bus), and “Handy” is probably shorthand for “handicap access.”

Back in the Pleistocene, the school buses in my town weren’t accessible by wheelchair. By noticing the details, I learned something about school buses. Will this ever come up in my writing? (Other than this blog, I mean.) Probably not, but who knows? If I ever write a murder mystery, maybe a school bus will have been seen at the scene of the future crime. Maybe some alert soul will have noticed the number.

Too much detail can obscure the main point.

Too much detail can obscure the main point.

Details often sprout into images, similes, and metaphors. Images, similes, and metaphors aren’t scary when they grow organically from your own experience. If you mess around in a garden, for instance, your mind is almost certainly linking what your eyes see, your hands feel, and your nose smells to other things in your life. When I look at my little garden, sometimes I think about making pesto or eating cherry tomatoes, but other times I think, What a mess! I can’t see what’s going on here.

Which is what I sometimes think when I’m revising and come to a passage that’s drowning in detail. Pruning is good, both for prose and for shrubs.

I often think in generalities and abstractions, but when I describe my thoughts to someone else, I almost always reach for concrete images to illustrate them. No surprise there: most useful generalizations are firmly grounded in specifics. In the spring of 1970, I was a freshman at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Here’s a story from that time, as recounted several decades later:

Lauinger Library opened toward the end of my freshman year, about a month before the Kent State shootings shut the campus down. Within a very few weeks footpaths had appeared across the green lawn fronting the library, one leading from the main gate, the other from the corner of Healy Hall where foot traffic from several dorms and classroom buildings converged. Imagine a terrestrial ice cream cone, with the traffic circle standing in for one scoop of your favorite flavor and the tip at the library’s front door. While war raged in Southeast Asia and anti-war movements fought it across the United States and around the world, university officials battled the entire student body over the right way to walk to the library. The officials contended that we should follow the existing asphalt walkway around the perimeter of the lawn. Our footsteps, in their hundreds, then thousands and tens of thousands, countered that the shortest distance between two points was a straight line.

Our footsteps carried the day. Officialdom conceded, and the foot-beaten paths were enshrined in asphalt.

“The shortest distance between two points is a straight line”: Well, duh — everybody knows that. But the truism doesn’t stick in my mind the way that story has all these years. It taught me to pay attention to something that just about all of us tend to forget: footsteps matter.

Footsteps, come to think of it, are like details. Pay attention to them. They’re important.

 

Grow Your Images

I loved high school English, but after all those in-depth discussions of Shakespeare, Hemingway, Austen, Fitzgerald, and the rest, I went out into the world with some wrong ideas about writing.

I thought images, symbols, and metaphors were like booby traps. Writers embedded them in their stories in order to razzle-dazzle sophisticated readers, and to trick high school students. Why was there a green light at the end of Jay Gatsby’s dock? Why, to drive us crazy, of course.

My English teacher senior year was aware of the problem. She’d ask what an author was trying to do in a particular passage and then, usually after a minute of nervous silence from the class, add, “This is not a trick question.” We didn’t believe her.

For many years, I wrote mostly nonfiction. Nonfiction, I mistakenly thought, was safe from images, symbols, and metaphors. When I started dabbling in poetry, I knew I was in trouble. Poetry is all about images, symbols, and metaphors, isn’t it?

I am not a gardener, but I do have a little garden. It's in an old dinghy.

I am not a gardener, but I do have a little garden. It’s in an old dinghy.

Before long, though, I got it: Images, symbols, and metaphors grow out of the writing. They’re gifts, like sprouts in the spring garden. (Look, look! A simile!) The gardener can nourish them and help them grow, or she can decide the row is too crowded and yank some of the seedlings out. (Metaphor!)

A writer I once workshopped with relayed something she’d heard from a poet she knew: “To be a writer, you have to know one thing well.”

The thing you know well is the soil from which your images, symbols, and metaphors grow. Of course there can be more than one thing, and you can always learn more.

We humans have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Think how often we use them figuratively, as opposed to literally. A sighted person can be blind to her talents. A blind person can have vision. I was touched by his concern. That story smells funny.

When my retina detached, I barely knew what a retina was.

When my retina detached, I barely knew what a retina was.

Almost 10 years ago, the retina in my right eye detached. In traveling back and forth to Boston, I saw firsthand the changes wrought in the wake of 9/11, which I’d managed to mostly ignore for three years because I don’t travel much and don’t have a TV. Over the following years I wrote an essay about the experience: “My Terrorist Eye.” My main images are right there in the title. They were there from the beginning.

You’ve probably heard the saying “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” This is true. It’s aimed at Freudians who want to turn everything of a certain shape into a phallic symbol. At the same time, the cigar may have significance beyond the literal. If one of your characters recoils from the smell of cigar smoke — well, there may be a story behind it.

When the garden gets too crowded, it's hard to see what's going on.

When the garden gets too crowded, it’s hard to see what’s going on.

Any story or poem or essay is bound to have lots of images in it. This is fine. Gardens contain lots of plants, don’t they? All sorts of plants. At the same time, if you’ve got too many flowers growing in a limited space, your readers won’t know where to look. They may miss something that you want them to notice. Keep that in mind when you get down to revising your work.

One last thing to keep in mind: Many, many common expressions are metaphors that have long since come adrift from their literal meanings. This can get writers into trouble. Take the phrase “rein in,” as in “rein in one’s ambition.” I sometimes see “reign in” even in the work of pretty good writers. “Rein in” comes from horsemanship. If you keep horses, reins, and bridles in mind, you won’t write “reign” for “rein.” (Come to think of it, I don’t believe I’ve ever come across a reference to “unbridaled passion.” It has possibilities, doesn’t it.)

Metaphors and images can be effectively mixed and matched. They can complement each other or create dissonance. If you use them with care and know where they came from, you won’t inadvertently come up with doozies like “He’s a wolf in cheap clothing” — which also has possibilities, but seriously, you don’t want to do it by mistake, do you?

For a crash course in metaphors, see this post by Richard Nordquist, a retired English professor who is very good at explaining things.

 

My writing may be a garden, but I'd rather eat tomatoes than words.

My writing may be a garden, but I’d rather eat tomatoes than words.