A Change in Perspective


Logs in my yard

Continuing on from my post last week in which I suggested we should try taking a look around us and just write a scene with whatever pops into view first, I have another simple experiment we can do to try to kick start our creativity for 2015. I have used this strategy a lot, actually, when I want to brainstorm or try to generate new ideas.

The concept is simple:

  1. Find an object in your yard, in the room, in the parking lot, or wherever you might be.  Note what it is.  For example, I’m currently looking at a round slice from a tree that was cut down.
  2. Now, in your mind or on paper, think of this object as we perceive it today and describe it and how it is used, where it came from, what it smells like, tastes like, feels like, etc.
  3. Next… say “What if…” and look at the object from a different angle.  For example, my round slice of tree could be stood on end and now it looks like a wooden wheel.  What if this wooden wheel had been part of an early vehicle? Who rode in that vehicle? What was the ride like? What did the passengers in the vehicle talk about?  Where did this wheel take them?
  4. Repeat step 3.  What if my slice of tree was actually a pedestal from the Town Center and had a history of people standing upon it and delivering famous speeches? What if it was one of many tables at a neutral meeting place where peace treaties, political alliances and other major decisions were negotiated?  What if secret messages were encoded in the rings, like some sort of wooden record?

You can do this with anything.  Take any ordinary object and change your perspective on it.  You can use your camera and take a picture of an object, then pull that picture into photo editing software and change the colors, the backgrounds, the contrast.  Invert the colors or apply a sepia filter to it (or both).  Perhaps rotate it 90 degrees in one direction or another.  When you change the perspective, even just a little bit, the whole object becomes new and different. What new stories will you tell about an old, ordinary thing?

Logs with colors inverted

Logs with colors inverted

Logs with inverted colors and a sepia filter

Logs with inverted colors and a sepia filter

Why I don’t like to write about where I live: a study in contradictions

I can’t remember exactly who told me that the heath in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native was a character. I wish I could remember, because I’d like to thank that person. Landscape as character has stuck with me since I first read that novel in tenth grade. And since then, I’ve gone looking for other such landacters or charscapes, if you will, in everything I read.

My memory of Egdon Heath, as it was named in Return of the Native, is as a wild, wind-swept, rain-pelted, snow-encrusted, greedy place—a hungry thing that shrunk and grew with the seasons, and against which the tragedies of the human characters played out. It’s been quite a while since I read Return of the Native, and so my memory of its characters is a bit cloudy. Yet, when I think of that novel—and the heath in particular—I am hit with strong images, with a sense of things, rather than specific, or even accurate, plot points. For example, as I was thinking about this post, I was sure that Eustacia, one of the main human characters, had died as a result of exposure on the heath. After flipping through my book, I realized that my memory had misled me (spoiler alert): she had, in fact, thrown herself into a nearby river and drowned. My point is that what I recall of the heath has more to do with its personality traits—bleak, vindictive, unrelenting—rather than actual plot points.  My memory of Egdon Heath is fuzzy around the edges, and not quite specific.

When I think about landscape in my own writing, I notice that the landscape that I currently exist in is not the one I want to write about. I have many theories for this, and they contradict: there’s a war between clarity and obscurity. Maybe I feel like I’m too close to the current landscape to see it clearly; a true assessment of its characteristics wouldn’t be possible. It’s like the inability to point out a new lover’s flaws—you are too close and too in love to see them. Or maybe I see my current landscape as mundane, old hat, boring snoring. I’m living in it and with it, and what is there to say? It’s bland and lacks character because I see it every day.  Or maybe I just want some distance so I can love the old landscape again, so I can give it its rightful (or at least fairer) characteristics.

I think avoiding the current landscape for the past ones has something to do with the way that I remember Egdon Heath. Living in/with a landscape is perhaps too precise, too fact-driven. Reflecting on a past landscape is more imagistic, sensory, feelings-based. As with any memory of things past, I revise, reshape. Sometimes I remember things worse than they were, or better. The terrible relationship becomes a funny story, where my own ridiculous decisions are played up as comedy, as opposed to focusing on the 12,000 times I sat in my room and cried.

I like remembering the small, seaside town of Aberystwyth, Wales where I lived for a year, as a windy, damp, moody place, with tiny streets, quintessentially British architecture, and idyllic countryside dotted with old churches and graveyards. I don’t like remembering the specificity of the damp (my clothes dotted with mold, the stubbornness of my coal fireplace to light), or the remoteness of the town that frequently drove me to boredom. Or rather, it’s not that I don’t want to remember those things, but that I didn’t want to write about them when I was in it. I wanted to wait, until I could see all of it a bit more hazily, until I could give it some context and gain some perspective (or maybe at least until I could reach in my closet for a dress that wasn’t mold-wracked). But perspective in this case, for me, meaning less clarity. Or does it? What kind of perspective does distance and time give to something? If I return to Egdon Heath and the way I remembered it, I could say, on one hand, that I have a terrible memory and that I’m just wrong about the heath; on the other hand, I could say, my impression of the heath is true, my hazy memory of it is what matters.

And as far as Aberystwyth goes, now, I can use the town in my writing based on my broad strokes of memory—I can create mood and temperament more dramatically, perhaps, because of the distance from the actual place. I can create Aberystwyth, the character, with its seaside arcade, its ruined castle, its university, and Constitution Hill, that looked out over Cardigan Bay. I can make it moody and dreary, with unwelcoming bus drivers who resent my inability to speak Welsh. Or I can make it cheerful, with the sun shining, the seaside promenade bustling with walkers, the wind mild, and the waves rolling peacefully inward. I can create these two, seemingly contradictory characters, because really, Aberystwyth was both, and I can see that better or worse, now.

Shake things up: change the viewpoint

A few months ago a friend wrote a dismissive blog post about The Great Gatsby.    Now whether you like the book or not – and if you haven’t read it as an adult, I think the odds are stacked to not like it—the fact that, even taking out the critics and the teachers, many generations of readers absolutely love it says it must be a compelling book in some way.  Personally, I like it.  I find it beautifully written, compelling, and remarkably easy to read despite being written when my great-grandmother was a young woman.  Sometimes I think I like it because it was written so long ago.  The author uses techniques that have fallen by the wayside for the most part.   And I suspect that may be what my friend didn’t like.  I think she didn’t like the viewpoint.

A review of what we typically think when viewpoint is mentioned

First Person The story (or part of it) is told from the direct point of view of a character.  This is the point of view I find myself most comfortable with as it’s how I “see” the story.  It is also a very powerful point of view in certain stories.  In Gone Girl, it’s used brilliantly.  The intimacy created between reader and the two character encourages – begs us – to go beyond understanding their motives and outright judge them.Unfortunately, it’s become the default point of view in some genres.  I know it is in fantasy, at any rate; I would not be surprised if it is also the default in romance, mystery, and chick lit.  It’s used because it’s easy to connect with, not necessarily because it’s best for the story.
Third Person, Limited The story is told as if we are watching the character through a window (or tv screen.)  The information revealed is restricted, like first person, to what the character knows, or even to what the character does and says.  This limitation can also be very engaging. Since we don’t “hear” what the character is thinking, we interpret his/her actions before the actual motivation reveals itself.
Third Person, Omniscient The story is told outside of the character, but without restriction to what information is shared.  It sounds so freeing when stated like this, but I’ve never found it so.  The author has to cherry pick information to tell the story, otherwise the narrative wanders and has the potential to lose focus.  Anne Tyler opens Saint Maybe this way.  She introduces us to the family from the neighborhood’s perspective before spiraling slowly into direct contact with the main characters. Jane Austen opens Pride and Prejudice with society’s general consensus about marriage and single men then introduces us to the Bennet family and their situation.  Still, it is the point of view I struggle with the most, both as a writer and a reader.  Hard sci-fi with an omniscient point of view loses me completely because it focuses on broader events rather than events focused within a limited character set I’ve become intimately involved with as a reader.

Keep in mind, I read a lot of plot-oriented novels and the general comments reflect that.  But, really, this was all meant as a refresher, to establish, as we already know, that each has strengths and weakness.  It’s also to clear the air, to show you what I don’t mean when I say this:

Changing the point of view changes how much we see in the story.  Changing the story’s viewpoint changes the story.

What I mean when I say viewpoint

For the purposes of this post, I’m making a distinction between point of view, by which I mean first person narrative, etc., and viewpoint, by which I mean the character we see the story through.

Back to Jane Austen…  Although it begins third person omniscient point of view, Pride and Prejudice comes to us through Eliza Bennet’s viewpoint.  We see the story of her family and falling in love with Mr. Darcy through her understanding of it.  We become intimate with the Bennet family, if not as deeply, personally intimate as we do with the husband and wife (the first-person viewpoint characters) in Gone Girl.

The Great Gatsby, on the other hand, is a first person point of view but the viewpoint is from a person only peripherally involved, at least at first, with the titular (and therefore focal) character.  We become drawn into the story of Gatsby’s great love because Nick, the narrator, becomes drawn into it.  We never become intimate with Gatsby, we are forever at a remove from him, trying to puzzle him out while Nick does the same.   I think this is what turns off some readers, but it’s what I find interesting about the book.  It makes Gatsby a romanticized, tragic-hero sort of character.  We are introduced to him when he’s the celebrity of the moment, and we come to know him as he falls from grace.

This post isn’t about Gatsby at all, of course; it’s the use of viewpoint.  Or perhaps the overuse.

I think that we are so used to the main players of the story being the main characters of the novel that we write it automatically, without critically considering what angles the story could come from and how that helps or hurts the story.  We’ve forgotten, for the most part anyway, that there’s more to viewpoint than first-person, third-person, limited, omniscient.  And even as each point of view brings advantages and disadvantages to the story, so does each character’s viewpoint.

So here’s a challenge for you, and this is for fun:

Consider an in-progress story or a completed story, something you have a solid understanding of the characters.  Now think about what the story – the same players, events, even using the same point of view – looks like from the viewpoint of another character. Now see it from a character who wasn’t in the room.  What about viewed from the viewpoint of the table or the couch cushion?  Discuss.

Lessons from Camelot

Tori Amos once said, and I’m paraphrasing here, that choosing her favorite song was like choosing a favorite child, and that whichever she didn’t choose would feel the rejection. That’s the way I feel about choosing just one book that has influenced me.

Before I tell you the winner, let me at least tell you who was in the running, so I don’t feel as guilty. On Writing by Stephen King, IT by Stephen King, The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, Here, Bullet by Brian Turner, and anything by Joyce Carol Oates.

I still feel guilty. So many of my favorites hung out to dry.

But there must be a winner. And that lucky book is . . . The Mists of Avalon!

For those of you unfamiliar with this book, it’s about the Arthurian legend, told predominantly from the point of view of Morgan le Fey (Morgaine as Bradley calls her) and focuses on the struggles and adventures of the women involved in this tale.

I read this book at two dramatically different times in my life. First as a 17-year old, and then as a 30-year old, and I must say that the second experience of reading it was as exhilarating and as meaningful as the first. This is a common concern: that I’ll revisit my favorite books, only to find them lackluster and wilted with the years. But not so in this case.

At 17, I was just beginning to come into my feminism. I wasn’t quite sure what that word meant to me, or how it would shape my life. When my best friend turned me on to MOA, the first thing that struck me was that this was a novel about women, told in their voices. At the time, that was a revolutionary thought, and it made sudden sense to me. Arthur, Lancelot, Merlin are all well and good, but there are so many women who play pivotal roles in the legend—let’s hear about them! I liked that Bradley doesn’t just give voice to Gwenhwyfar (who has always been a heavy-hitter), but she recasts Morgaine, exhumes her from the dustbin of witchery, haggery, deformity, and places her within that iconic triangle of Arthur, Lancelot, and Gwenhwyfar as a powerful character. In fact, Bradley crafts a whole mess of triangles (feminist, much?) and throws her characters from one to the other, showing that stories—and history, perhaps—are shaped and reshaped. Stories are malleable.

So, at 17, I was struck by the blatant woman-ness of the novel. It made me feel strong and wise, and it tapped into my feelings of sensuality and desire.

At 30, I had much the same reaction. I was just as excited to read the first few lines (“Morgaine speaks . . . In my time I have been called many things: sister, lover, priestess, wise-woman, queen . . . ), I was just as tapped into that feeling of sensuality, I was just as interested in the range of women Bradley develops and in their public and private concerns. And I had the same distaste and frustration with the ending, which I won’t elaborate on here (in case you want to read the book yourself).

Besides affecting me in terms of my feminism, the book influenced my writing as well. First of all, MOA gave me permission (that I clearly needed) to write about women. Second, it showed me that even if I was writing about the Arthurian legend, or 19th century mining towns, or how I felt that day about a boy, there should be a running current of real, relatable, human concerns. Everything that goes on in MOA has to do with power, lust, hope, betrayal, love and forgiveness — despite what other fantastical things might be happening — and those are feelings/experiences we all know and can access. I learned (and am still learning) to use those big feelings, especially when I’m writing something that seems obscure or strange. Readers will relate if you give them something to relate to.  Another thing I learned from MOA is something that I brought up in my introductory post; this thing about intentionally shifting focus from the heavy-hitters, the big guns, the main attraction, so to speak, and focusing instead on the periphery. For Bradley, Morgaine was peripheral, as was her mother, Igraine, and as were so many other women in the Arthurian legend. Peripheral, or nonexistent. Bradley chose to put these characters front and center, and create other characters that reflected common, relatable problems women (and men, for that matter) face.

Lastly, I learned that writing can interweave both fact and fiction, that I can take what serves me most in what is out there—news stories, legends, historical accounts— and zoom in on what interests me so that I can focus, shift, add to, and reshape them to make something new.

On Being An Unexpected Writer

Writing fiction is one of the central features of my life.

Confession: that sentence evokes a strange feeling of dislocation as I write it. It’s strange to think about just how many hours per week I spend writing and thinking about fiction.

This wasn’t my life’s goal, not something I always dreamed of doing when I grew up. I read loads of novels and short stories, of course, in all sorts of genres: Sci-fi, fantasy, mystery, horror, etc. To write them, though… this was never something I ever considered.

Mostly, this was due to other, stronger passions and career ambitions. In part, it was because my family and culture regarded storytelling skill as trivial bullshitting and blarney, a fine ability to go with conviviality among family and friends, but not anything that should be regarded as an actual skill with any real marketable value. In part, though, it was because I took up with my mother’s milk the assumption that (in the unfortunate lingo of Missouri in the 1970s) “only drug addicts, queers and Communists” wrote books. It might be OK to READ books sometimes, but it wouldn’t be at all respectable to WRITE them.

Needless to say, I didn’t fit in well as a child.

How strange it is, then, that after so many years of thinking that writing is something that only “other people” do, a respectable, boring, 9-to-5 day job, statistically average guy like me should recognize writing as one of the mainstays of my life. The foundations laid down in my youth still whisper that this is somehow wrong. Playing a sport of some kind (softball, bowling, cycling, hunting, etc.) would be a sufficiently manly past-time, as would the watching of other grown men play a sport of some kind (football, baseball, basketball, auto racing, etc.). Even watching cooking shows, political screaming and other forms of mindless television for hours on end would be more acceptable. After all, who in their right mind would deliberately make things up and not only write them down, but worry over the phrasing so that their lies would be more convincing? Every now and then, the cognitive dissonance can be almost overwhelming.

How important is writing to me? When other things don’t go well, I dust off my hands and get on with the next task. When my writing doesn’t go well, I agonize, lying awake at night wondering what has gone wrong with me.

Recently, I read that Miguel de Cervantes didn’t start writing until he was in his forties. He never wanted to be a writer; he worked for, and succeeded at, a career in the army. It was only after twenty-odd years of military service that he began to cast around for something else to do, some new passion in which to invest his hours. “Don Quixote” was one of the works that resulted, probably the best known work of Spanish literature in all of history.

I wonder if Major Cervantes’ superiors knew that he was a scribbling away on odd bits of parchment during his lunch breaks and on slow afternoons in the quartermaster’s office. All those reports, memos, budgets and other administrative tasks that were so vitally important at the time are now just dust, unrecorded and unremembered. If only all writers with day jobs could draw comfort from latter-day success of their hobbyist fictions!

My first real book is out in the world, trying to find a home. I’m working hard not to build up expectations for how it will fare in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel competition. My next book is banging at the doors of my mind, trying to get out and onto the page.

Do other writers function the way I do? Is your writing a pair of glasses through which you view the world?