Étude for Writers (No. 2)

 
 
 
Page Dancing
 
 
 

This morning, I am the only dancer on this quiet downtown street*.  My chin lifts to the wind that rushes ’round the corner of a high building.  The wind is always in such a hurry during the winter.

And so am I, in my way.
 
 
 

I walk.  My headphones pour music into my ears, giving a rhythm to my steps, to my heartbeat; to the pigeons that rise and fall, rise and fall from concrete to air with a great shudder; to the workmen furrowed over a crack in the asphalt; to the woman wreathed in parcels unlocking the door to her shop.

For twenty years, I have crowned my head with headphones, worn music about me like a silk dress, everywhere and anywhere.   This ritual of music and place is so threaded throughout my person that I do not know how to write without an inner ear turned toward the music of language, trained to hear the music of the day that will rise and fall, rise and fall, from sunup to sundown without ceasing.
 
 
 

I walk.   A poem begins to form in front of me in an incandescent bubble.  I watch the light catch soap and air, and I remain inwardly still while moving forward.  And gently, oh so gently, as I walk, I pull my notebook out of my knapsack to write down the mousseaux of words before it deflates, or floats away.

It has been twenty years, or more, since I first slipped on that revelation of headphones jacked to a Walkman.   I know there are other ways to be and to write, but what I speak of here is preference, and preference is the fundamental music of making new things, as equally as constraints are the lines on the notebook page, the scaffolding of all stories, on which I scrabble and mutter over day after day.
 
 
 

In recent years, I walk without headphones more often than not, because I want to hear the countermelody of an ordinary day.  But when I write, there must be music, real or imagined.  Better yet, there must be music and walking— both, with my eyes turned outward to the story of the street, with my heart pinned like an old brooch to the woolen breast of my winter coat, with my ear tuned neatly to a song that rises and falls, rises and falls, as I haphazardly begin to pick a new route home.
 
 
 

*This line is an homage to an Elizabeth Smart’s book-length prose poem, “The Assumption of Rogues and Rascals.”  I’ve been hoarding that sentence for nearly twenty years, and now I am sharing it with you. <3
 
 
 
 
 
 

MORE WRITING ABOUT WRITING:

*Étude for Writers (No. 1)
 
 
 

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPH: I shot this photo weeks ago in preparation for this story. The headphones and notebook you see there are my own. <3
 
 
 
*WHOA! This is my 700th POST for Bluebird Blvd.

 
 
 
 
 
 

Étude for Writers (No. 1)

 
 
 

[Woman playing the piano.]

 
 
 

It’s late at night again, and writing isn’t going well.  I stare at the page and the page stares back at me.  One of us will have to blink.  The dogs sleep on my feet.  With the curtains closed and the air conditioner on, it could be any time at all, really.   Writing isn’t going well, and I am not bothered.  Writing rarely goes well— what you see at the other end is the revision, the rewrite, all of me hustling into the sentences with my broad little shoulder to make them go, man, go.
 

Two weeks ago, in a random conversation, someone I just met referred to my writing as a hobby.  (Writing rarely goes well.  Maybe I do need a hobby?)  This experience of confusion about writers working for actual pay has only happened twice in my life, so it’s more of a novelty than an annoyance.   The other time, a businessman asked me that old saw: ” But what do you do for money?”  “I write.”  “Yes, but—” His hands kneaded the air, helplessly.  “What do you do… for money?”
 

When writing isn’t going well, and it rarely does, I think of those folks who turn to you, bright faced at a party, and say, “Well, that must be so therapeutic!”  “Which?”  I am genuinely confused.  “Writing.” They explain.  “How so?” I ask.  I really do want to know.  Have I been doing it wrong all these years?  There’s a therapeutic version?  No rewrites?  No long hours?    “You know— you get to sit down and—” They look embarrassed for you, you, the holder of wordy, verb-stuffed riches.  “Talk about your feelings… and experiences, and—”
 

The clock hands turn slow-fingered on those nights, with those folks, when I try to explain what writing is like— as a professional.  That is, I used to try to explain what it is like to write (which never goes well), but no one really wants to hear that story so much.  The fantasy is a peppy thrill ride.  A pretty window and a desk, hands flying at the keyboard, the crash of the theatrical music piling up as page after page turns into a hardback book that, in the last scene of the montage, is placed prominently into the window of an independent bookstore next to a cardboard cutout of the writer’s head.
 

And so I sit, here, late at night, on the couch, losing circulation in both feet while one dog sleeps and the other dog dreams.  This is the montage as I know it:  I sleep and I am writing.  I wake and I am writing.  I stand and I am writing.  I cradle the dog’s head in the kitchen as the coffee perks and I am writing.  I walk into my office and I am writing. I sit down and open the notebook where I have written all of my notes, and I take up the pen and I do not write. 
 

After a few tense minutes, I stand and I stretch and I stare out of the window on the birds plucking at the bread we threw in the yard yesterday, and I hum a bit, and I sit down again.  I flex my broad little shoulders and prepare myself to muscle through the part of my mind where the skittish words flock, and I begin to write.  And, just this once, it goes well. That’s not normal. Now, I’m bothered. I blink, and I think, well, I probably do need to get some sort of hobby. Something therapeutic. How hard could it be to learn to play the accordion?
 
 
 

Starting this week, through the end of August, Bluebird Blvd. will be moving to an every other day schedule of Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday. Every other day may become the permanent schedule. For the moment though, it’s something I’m trying out. I appreciate your kindness, your support, and, in general and in specific, you.

Adulthood CONFIDENTIAL! A Word of One’s Own at the Gates of the Secret City

 
 
 
God kväll, farbror! Hälsade pojken
 
 
 


 
Last night, Nora Ephron passed away at the age of 71. This essay is dedicated to her work and her memory.
 
 
For months now, I’ve been watching excellent new writers climb up these steep hills of the electronic stratosphere. I’d like to say that I was sitting in a comfortable position on the top of the cliffs as a well-established writer (but relatively new blogger) tsk-tsking sympathetically with my binoculars and sipping on my coffee, but no, no—that’s not the way writing works.

You’re never in repose, you see. Because you’re writing, or thinking about writing, or you have written, and now need sleep.

Remember also, I may be an professional writer, but I am a new blogger, so there’s nothing established about me. Not in this world.

Or the next one— the one where I will need to wash my clothes or run errands, and what have you.
 
 
 

The hours involved with professional writing are what they always were, which is to say long, and full of tight-stitched tasks that surround the work of writing. A work that is physical in its own way.

These other tasks aren’t writing at all, but detail work— like pitching stories to editors and following up on correspondence with same and chasing down checks for invoices you submitted months ago and finding new and inventive ways to keep your ear to the ground for fresh ideas and ideal sources for future work.

So, there’s all that business, too. Blogs aren’t terribly different, just so you know.
 
 
 

That thing climbing up next to you over your shoulder in my big extended hiking as writing metaphor? That’s fear.

This kind of fear is not your friend. Fear like this will kick you down the mountain and laugh all the way behind you.

Fear and I? We are old adversaries. I know it’s tricks.

While fear is a few steps behind us all, I’ve been climbing those hills too as I’ve written daily for Bluebird Blvd., the blog I created with my own two callused hands almost eight months ago.

And I’ve been scaling the sheer faces of cliffs alongside my friends in this world of blogs. I know what the territory is like. Some days, the silence is treacherous. On other days, the self-doubt, obnoxious. And then there’s the ego, which is malodorous at best.

Here’s what I’m watching happen now while I write and create and sweat and climb. I am watching new writers reach the next plateau where there’s a nice little city and a place where you can shower and get back on the road of writing, but some writers are turning back at the city gates to go home. They are quitting blogging. They are slowing down. They are expressing fear or self-doubt or worse.

Next thing you know, they’ve stopped. You’ve stopped.
 
 
 

Awake Groa Awake Mother - John Bauer
 
 
 

Before you start climbing down that first hill, I want you to halt, sit down and listen.

I know you have jobs/responsibilities/children/health issues/money problems and I know that you aren’t sure what to do next/are feeling as though you’re shirking your “real” responsibilities/are hitting that point where self-doubt has got you by the neck and is asking you, with stinky cheese breath— “How DARE you?”

And you’re tired.

And you don’t know where this leads.

And it was more work than you thought it would be.

And you don’t know if your stuff is any good.
 
 
 

I am sure you see the direction this tale is taking?

There are a thousand-thousand-thousand reasons why people do not make art, do not write.

For every reason you can consider, there is another writer who came up against that obstacle, paused to examine herself and the obstacle, and punched through it.

What you think are genuine problems were not problems three months ago, right? You were writing then, weren’t you? Why is today different? Why are you second-guessing everything?

You’re afraid.

Oh, yes. Fear is amazing. Respect fear. Then go off and kick it in the kneecap.

You heard me!
 
 
 

I’ve watched so many of you create these beautiful, tactile, soul-filled places that I go and visit regularly. I love to ooh and ahh over your creations. Your blogs are fine architecture made of words.

Yet, recently, you’ve come just far enough in your creative process to feel your doubt grow a long shadow.

Consider that shadow. Give it proper respect. Then you stomp on that shadow.
 
 
 

There’s nothing, and I mean NOTHING you can’t do as a writer.

What you do not know, you can learn, and what scares you may be real, but it isn’t real enough to stop you from the one thing that makes your heart beat faster like a clean new metronome in the morning— which is writing. A word that is a verb. A verb that describes creating worlds from words.

And you wonder why fear finds your vocation so exciting? Such good fodder to feed from? When you write, you are making life from nothing but breath and ink.
 
 
 

Do you see how powerful you are?

Take a breath. Get a glass of water. Sit down. If you see fear coming? You tell ’em I said, “Hello.” And you punch ’em in the face for me.

Fear is powerful, yes.

And so is creation.

I’m right inside of the gates of this new city waiting for you. I need a shower. I’m starving for hot food. And I want to sit for a bit before we start climbing again. The locals are imaginary, so they speak every language and their cooking is sublime.

Come on inside. Leave your fear at the gates. The wind will take it away for you.
 
 
 

 
 
Postscript: (And for my friends who are dancers, artists and photographers— nothing I’m discussing here is different, really, than your reality— save the fact that you have to go shopping for supplies more frequently than writers do. Please feel free to supplant writing with your vocation. It all applies. Much respect, my friends.)
 

Second Postscript: My friend Professor J. wrote about fear today and she referenced both Joy Harjo (one of my favorite poets; I workshopped under her, years ago), and, um, me— but what Professor J. had to say is so, so beautiful. It’s entitled, simply, “Fear.”
 

Third Postscript: I forgot to mention that the second event that prompted the writing of this piece was my friend Meeka’s discussion of writing, responsibility and fear in her short essay Is Creativity a Leisure Time Pursuit? I had hit a different wall lately in which I was wondering about the next step in my blogging adventure, and Meeks reminded me of something I consider terribly important, which is the necessity of art. A belated thank you, Meeks!

 

Reading Poetry in the Big Chief Years

 
 
 
bigchief
 
 
 


When people confide in me that they don’t read poetry, that they are uncomfortable reading poetry, I smile and I nod. 

I smile and nod to the poetry-shy because my sense of poetry is that it is a language within a language.   And, like any language, poetry requires a certain amount of immersion in order to absorb it into your skin.

In fact, I consider poetry to be my first language— one I absorbed early and thoroughly and messily.
 
 
 
I learned to read at the age of three.  Alongside picture books, I read pastoral and magical poems popular at the turn of the nineteenth century.   Poems stuffed to the rafters with elves and candlesticks and little girls with ironed ruffled nightgowns and ribbons in their hair. 

I listened to my grandparents recite famous poems in their mesquite honey voices.  Children of my grandparents generation memorized poems for school. My grandparents could and did recite, spontaneously, whole selections from Wordsworth and Longfellow— which still impresses me.

My mother knew musical theater. She taught me pacing and timing and harmony.  We sang rounds.  We sang in other languages.  We made up songs.  More to the point, my mother commuted a great deal and she did not have a radio in the car for many years. So, of course, we sang.

Bit by bit, all of my natural senses were exposed to the building blocks that make poetry.
 
 
 
What I don’t know, really, is how I made the leap from understanding poetry as a story— a short, tiny little story— to understanding poetry as this greater construct of tones and moods that did not require traditional narrative.  I do know that the poem that unlocked this door for me was “Fog” by Carl Sandburg—
 
 

    Fog
     

    The fog comes

    on little cat feet.
     
     
    It sits looking

    over harbor and city

    on silent haunches

    and then moves on.

 
 
I was seven when I read “Fog,” and I remember thinking, “Oh!”  And then,  “OH!”  Sandburg’s poem is not just about fog or cats feet or a city. It’s not a story at all, in the traditional sense. Sandburg’s poem is about tone— a grouping of feelings about mystery and transience and a little bit of emotional distance.

On a hot spring morning at the age of seven, I wrote a poem about a cloud using one of those horrid Big Chief tablets and a fat heavy pencil.  The classrooms hadn’t been opened yet.

The poem was a response to reading Sandburg’s poem.   I sat on the concrete floor of the school’s veranda with my back against the wooden siding, laboring over it, considering my words and clouds.  I erased clumsily and ripped the page, and had to start again.

(It could be argued that my first experience of writing poetry taught me how to be comfortable with writing multiple drafts to get a poem itself distilled down to its essential essence.  It could also be argued that I erase clumsily even today.)
 
 
 
I smile when someone confides in me that they are a little afraid of poetry. I understand.  

My primary language is poetry,  and I’m a little afraid of poetry. 

It’s so many things to so many people— it’s an history.  It’s a language.  It’s means of transmission.  It’s a political act.  It’s a mathematical equation.  It’s little cat paws, pausing and moving on from the city and the harbor.
 
 
 
What I mean to say is that poetry is potent and I understand your trepidation.  Try to read it anyway. One day the door will swing right open for you. I promise; I promise.

What I also mean to say is never use Big Chief tablets for writing.   Those notebooks were clumsy and mean and weird. What did Native American chiefs have to do with learning the Palmer Method of printing letters on crummy newsprint pages?

Nothing at all.

Use your good paper, your tough paper.  The making of a poem is full of guts and messes while you craft away at it.  A final poem is as solid as fog rising in deep wet stripes from cold concrete.

Carl Sandburg taught me that truth when I was seven. Well, that, and the power of metaphor.

Both these truths were a revelation.
 
 
 

BLOG CARNIVAL: YOUR FIRST POETRY MEMORY
 
 

HEY! THERE’S MORE! My lovely friend Karen Jensen— poet, essayist and photographer— proposed that we do a blog carnival today about the very first poem that we remember reading. I thought it was an extraordinary idea— but, then again, Karen is an extraordinary woman and an extraordinary talent.

Please do go over to Karen Jensen’s blog, Professor J’s Place to hear Karen’s thoughts on her first poetry experience.

I adore her writing and I adore her. I do hope you get a chance to make her acquaintance today!

Also! Karen’s friend Robin EB has weighed in with her first poetry experience one her beautifully named blog, Vitis Poema! Yum!

AND! My new awesome possum friend KATE wrote about “The Road Not Taken” in the gorgeous “A Poetry Carnival And Other Wake-Up Calls.”

The lovely, lovely METAN revisits Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” and adds a fresh new twist— her youthful sons weigh in on the meaning of this beautiful somewhat nonsensical poem! Enjoy the brilliant take here: The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of many things. Lewis Carroll..

DO YOU have a first experience of poetry that you would like to share? Let us know! We will add a link to your lovely story! Carnivals are for everybody! YAY!
 
 
 
Thanks to L. Blanchard for the Big Chief tablet photograph. I appreciate it!

 
 
 

Feeling Your Way Through A Newly Darkened Room (A List)

 
 
 
Herring Boat - Gratti
 
 
 

This is what it is like— every time.   

A question will come to you—  a question without an easy answer. 

It will flit past your eyes like a large black moth. 

But, you must catch it lightly— your own hands are too heavy for a new question.

Carefully now.  Carefully.
 
 
 
Your new idea sits on a yellow scrap of paper in your pocket. 

It burns.  It glows. 

You forget it is there for a day, maybe two, and the third day you wake up.

You know what you must do.
 
 
 
You buy a notebook from the corner store— a marbled composition notebook with saddle stitching.

You pay for your notebook with old change.  The girl behind the counter makes a pretty little joke and you laugh.

She doesn’t know you are rowing farther and farther away from shore.

You laugh because you’re polite.

Your oars dip into the water.   You pull with all your weight.  Your idea is taking you far away.

This part, you will only remember two years from now.
 
 
 
You pull out that tiny yellow scrap of a question from your pocket.  You wipe the lint from its face, and pin it to the wall.

You pull the notebook from your knapsack.  You crack its spine to open it up to the story.

That’s what you’re doing, you know.  You’re going to tell a story.

Things are moving quickly now.
 
 
 
A year later. 

You look around.  The notebook is filled with graffiti from your first idea.

The face of the notebook is gouged and scarred.  One cardboard ear is pinned back.

The scrap of yellow paper on the wall is surrounded with a thousand others similarly scrabbled in mouse print.

Photographs peek out between the bloom of notes.

You are amazed. What have you done?
 
 
 
Ferry Boat - Tyne c1900
 
 
 
You have taken up residence in your brain.

The rent is cheap, but none of the amenities work right.

You’ve written the first draft of your story.  It’s three hundred pages of horsepuckey.

You put your head down on the desk to sleep.

You go bowling with the gods.
 
 
 
You wake up six months from your nap.

You’ve written half of the second draft from what could be salvaged from the first horrible draft.

You are halfway in and halfway out.

You can see the next object and the next, but that is all.

It is like feeling your way through a newly darkened room that you do not know well enough to navigate without a light.

Your voice is hoarse from hearing your own words repeated back to you.

You need a haircut.  You need to speak to another living human being.  You need to finish this story.

You are getting strange from spending so much time alone.

You bend your head down for just a minute and—
 
 
 
Another year slides between your fingers.

You wake in your bed.  It was not a dream.

You go downstairs where five copies of the manuscript sit in a box.

The manuscript is your child.

You are sending your child to strangers— agents.

You’ve braced yourself for this day.   It’s hateful.  It’s joyous.

You cleared the notes from the wall and tucked them into a box last night.  You are tempted to open the box.  Go over your notes.  Old times’ sake.
 
 
 
Something stops you. 

You have a new question.  What if— ?

You grab a scrap of blue paper, scribble it down.  You put it in your pocket where it can wait.

Meanwhile, you’re due for a haircut.   You have to get to the post office.

You have one more errand after the first two.  You need to go to the corner store.

For some reason, it is time to buy a new notebook.

The little scrap of blue paper in your pocket ignites.  It smolders.  It burns.
 
 
 
 

Sailing Ship

 
 
 
HEY! PSST! YOU! YES, YOU!— My friend Professor J and I will be doing a BLOG CARNIVAL on May 17th!

The topic is the FIRST POEM you EVER READ!

If you are interested, please contact me by email— bluebirdblvd@att.net.

It’s open call, y’all! And it will be SO MUCH FUN!

 

Our Sunday Best: Who Is Driving This Story, Anyway? POV in Writing

 
 
 
C.W.A.Scott Binoculars


 
 
 
 
I crave books I love the way I crave certain foods.   I will stop cold in the middle of a task during the day with a single line from a novel or poem written in fire over my head, and the craving is so strong that I know, before the day is out, I will have that book tucked open in my right hand as neatly, and as tightly as a well-made bed.

The moment that drives my ordinary reader’s desire into the swerve of a bibliophilic craving is the artistry of the writing itself. (There are stories, and there are stories, after all.) What keeps me turning pages is my fascination with the person (or persons) whose story is being told.

But who is telling the story?

I’m not talking about the writer/author, per se.

(We know s/he is telling the story— sometimes s/he tells us right in the middle of the story— disruptively— but we’ll get into the fiddly bits of postmodern literature in just a bit.)
 
 
 

What I’m trying to ask you here is who is the actual voice telling you the story?

POV, or point-of-view, is one of the most necessary structural details you need to consider as you prepare to write your own stories.

Because, for every story, there are a thousand, thousand ways to use POV as one of the pistons pulling the action and motivation and meaning along.

There are no shortcuts to figuring out the POV question to help you sort out the structural details of your story.   

What should be helpful is to know what your options are in the POV world.   (Some structural details of a novel are setting, plot, tense, time frame and so on. There are many architectural elements necessary to provide your novel with a solid structure, but POV is where we will start.)

Those options may spur you to think of a new, or relatively unused form of POV that will send me, your reader, skidding to the bookshelf to devour the story you tell to sate a mad craving.
 
 
 

The big four points-of-view (POV) in brief — First person  (“I” or “We”); Second person (“You”); Close Third Person (“S/he “or “It” or “They”); and Omniscient Third Person (Reader sees everything narrator, AKA storyteller, reveals.). 

The hot POV right now is Close Third Person because— honestly?  That’s the POV everyone sees on TV.  Some folks argue that Close Third Person encourages strong verbs, but if you are revising your work— which you do, I am sure, because you are trying to create something beautiful and readable— you will tighten and strengthen your verbs when you revise.
 
 
 

Bundesarchiv Bild 183-31476-0007, Prerow, Urlauber mit Ferngläsern am Strand

 
 
 
 
POV is reallyreallyreallyreally important.  Think about it this way:  When your cousin tells the story of the time she got you to eat cat food, that’s one version of the story.  It isn’t the story.   I’m sure that version of the cat food eating story is a BIG HIT on holidays with your cousins.

When your mom tells that story, it becomes a completely different tale about the time when your badly-raised cousin talked you into eating cat food and your pediatrician had to take x-rays to make sure that you hadn’t also eaten the batch of free coupons in the cat food bag.  That’s your mother’s version.

What’s your mother’s sister’s version?  Is it the story of her free-spirited child and her uncontrollable younger cousin who didn’t know how to take a joke?

Ah.  Now you see what I’m seeing!  You are seeing the world as a writer views the world— the ways to tell the story fall out in endless combinations of POV! 

Each person is telling a completely different story using their own viewpoint, remembrance of the facts (dates, times, places), ability to observe, and on and on!
 
 
 
Here are a few imaginative uses of POV to think about today:
 
 
First Person POV/Alternating:   Each first person character tells their version of the story.  Jonathan Safran Foer wrote  Everything Is Illuminated with a double-first person POV.  The first part of the book is one part of the story by one person (Jonathan Safran Foer himself) and the second half of the book is the rest of the story told by his guide, Alexander Perchov. 

Popular in the 18th Century was the epistolary novel in which First Person POV/ Alternating narrator is played out in alternating letters between two or more parties.  Les Liasons Dangereuses, (Chonderlos de Laclos) is my favorite example.  It’s a more masterful novel than Safran Foer’s early but ambitious effort.
 
 
First Person POV/Gender Unspecified:  In Jeanette Winterson’s Written On The Body, you never know whether the person telling the story is a woman or a man.  The additional twist— Written On The Body is a compelling love story about the (gender non-specified) main character’s illicit attraction for a married woman.
 
 
First person POV/chorus:  The Virgin Suicides (Jeffrey Eugenides) is written from the perspective of a group of neighborhood boys— now grown men— who are fascinated by the Lisbon sisters, even after each girl commits an untimely act that ends in her death. You wouldn’t think this would work well, but the speaking as a Greek chorus of “we” makes the story more heartbreaking and intimate.
 
 
Second Person POV:  Although a second person narrator (“you”) is rarely used as a device in an entire novel, it’s often used in pop songs.   Because the directness of “you” can be difficult to maintain, only the most practiced and inventive writers use it with confidence in a longer form like a novel or novella— try  The Things They Carried  (Tim O’Brian) or Bright Lights, Big City (Jay McInterney).   

It’s such a rare POV that Wikipedia has a fairly definitive list of instances in novels and short stories where Second Person POV is used as the main POV.
 
 
Third Person POV/Close:  Almost every novel you read is in Third Person Close POV, but did you know there are two distinct subsets?
 
 

    The first is Subjective Third Person Close POV— that’s the one you know, where you see inside a singular character’s actions and the story is based on what s/he discerns from her/his sensory information.
     
     
    The second, Objective Third Person Close POV, is used more in feature stories for newspapers and academic writing— third person is used, but only observable phenomena are described.  (You, the reader, will get no internal psychological discussion in Objective Third Person Close POV.)

 
 
Third Person POV/True Omniscient:  You see everything under the sun, but do not know advance information about what will happen to the characters.  Dune  (Frank Herbert), which we will be discussing in about two weeks, is a textbook-perfect example of this POV.  Third person POV/True Omniscient is another common POV for the contemporary novel. Third Person POV/True Omniscient takes a lot of muscle control because the writer has almost infinite resources at her/his disposal with which to tell the story.
 
 
Third Person POV/Universal Omniscient:  This POV allows readers to have advance information the characters don’t know yet— of the “Little did Janie Sue know that she would soon fall off of a cliff.  But, you dear reader, know this” school of thought.   Victorian novels used this POV trick beautifully— it invites closeness between the reader and the unnamed (or named) narrator who is not inside the story being told and can jump around as s/he it sees fit.
 
 
 

Lookout-Oregon-1951

 
 
 
 
Let’s talk about the narrator of the story— that’s the person or persons whose voice is heard throughout the novel, short story, et. al.

When I say “narrator,” I’m not talking about the writer. The narrator is the person created by the writer to tell the story. Sometimes the narrator is well defined character, and sometimes you never really get to know who they are. Sometimes they are trustworthy, sometimes they are unreliable. 

Sometimes the “universal” narrator is the author— that’s another trope that postmodern writers liked to employ, and it is similar to “breaking the fourth wall” in theater, where the storyteller is revealed to be a storyteller and you, the readers/audience has “contact” with him/her.  (Officially, these breaks where the writer/author “speaks” to the reader are called “disruptions/intrusions into the narrative.”)

The bigger point here is that when you are reading and when you are writing— someone is being created or utilized to tell the story on the page.

The better control you have over point-of-view and its tricks and tropes, the stronger and more compelling the story becomes.
 
 
 
What people love about narrative and stories has little to do with the events or the action per se— we care about the people in the midst of the action, and one of the ways we learn to care about them is by tuning into the point-of-view that frames the way their story gets told.

For instance, when Andy Griffith retells the story of Romeo and Juliet, we care deeply about what happens to the two younguns’ because Griffith (who used this story in his comedy act first) makes the star-crossed lovers’ tale seem fresh for his audience. It’s a clear use of good POV— the Andy Griffith persona tells us a gripping tale of love and youth straight out of the hills that surround Mayberry.

In those moments when you are reading a story, you can easily get caught up in the moment and forget that a great deal of thought and structure when into the shaping of this tale that you love. The goal of every writer, and storyteller, of note— is to make it all seem effortless— as though the story is floating on a breeze and you managed to catch ahold of it.

And when a story is particularly well-crafted and effortless and created from an intoxicating POV, you’ll find me running towards it in the middle of the day, full-tilt, on fire with the words, enthralled with what happens next— even if I know the story word for word. Good POV unleashes the heart of my cravings, and that, alone, brings me back to the page again and again.

 
 
 

 
 
 

Bathing in the Flames of the Fire I Built

 
 
 
Proud as...
 
 
 

One of the singular pleasures of my life is laying up in bed with the lamp on, reading a book. 

I’ll read anywhere I’m put.  

But my first instinct when I have a book in my hand is to get horizontal— floor, bed, couch— any flat surface will do me.

I’ll even take a bench if that’s all there is, and I’ll tuck my elbow behind my ear to keep from getting one of those hard bench headaches.
 
 
 

Two or three days ago, I found myself horizontal and sideways on the bed and reading— with a stomachache.  I pulled up my knees and yanked up the sheets.  One hand absently rested above my abdomen. 

The book on the bed that day was Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners:  Occasional Prose.

I don’t know what you’ve read by O’Connor, but she’s an American writer from the South— one of the writers who got lumped in with the New Gothic Fiction crowd back in the 1940s.  

As a further insult, she got lambasted for about everything you can think of that doesn’t sound useful.

Critics took her down for being too Southern, too grotesque, too darkly comic, too religious (She was Catholic.), not religious enough, too accessible, and too inaccessible.

Oh— and mean.  The critics loved to call her mean.

Nobody was thrilled with the fact that she was a woman, writing, either, but in those days, being a woman was an ongoing insult no matter what you did.

Besides putting up with critics, O’Connor had lupus, early, hard and young. (She died at the age of 39.)

That gal really couldn’t win for losing.
 
 
 

Except—

She could write.  Better than me, anyway.  Better than most people, living or dead.

It’s the one thing O’Connor could do, and she did it well, and she was quite sick from her twenties onward and that’s all there is to it.

When she was called upon to speak about writing around where she lived (she couldn’t travel much when the lupus progressed), O’Connor wasn’t about to waste her time or yours making you feel good about your sloppily constructed story.

She honestly didn’t care what you thought.  She was going to tell you what she knew.  And that takes sure aim.

This book I was reading?  Basically, it’s a collection of speeches where Flannery O’Connor goes on a tour nailing every writer to the wall like she was collecting the pelts of any ink jockey who overused passive tense verbs. 

Good for her.  Time is short.  And art is long.
 
 
 

As I lay up there in the bed, I found myself laughing so hard my stomach hurt bad-awful.  But, y’all, I couldn’t help it.

All I could think as I alternated between laughing and gasping from the pain, is that O’Connor was no different than any of my mentors.

I don’t know what it is about me, but I have always had real teachers, the kind that won’t mess around, the kind that could, and did, say, “This is not good enough.  There’s more in you than what you’ve got right here.  And now I’m going to tell you why.”

The true mentors I have in my life, I think we picked each other, and they knew— and know— that when I’m in, I’m all in.  No going back.  And I know this about them, too.

O’Connor wanted writing more than she wanted anything else.  And she wanted it to be good writing.  She didn’t want to fool around with folks who were trying to make a quick buck off a bad story, or as she put it in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”—
 
 

    They are interested in being a writer, not in writing.  They are interested in seeing their names at the top of something printed, it matters not what.  And they seem to feel that this can be accomplished by learning certain things about working habits and about markets and about what subjects are currently acceptable.

 
 

And that’s one of her nicer statements.
 
 
 

I was born with a furrow between my light brown brows.  It’s only gained depth and width over the years.  I didn’t have much of what I’d call a childhood— I had dreams and I had a family who helped me get to those dreams as quick as I could because I had a lot of work in front of me. A life like that will deepen any furrow.

The furrow used to bother me, but that set of vertical lines stands for something I knew from a young age. 

Real art?  It is play and a ton of work.  If you’re a messing ’round type, you get a messing ’round art. 

I want to think that you (that I, that O’Connor) bathed in fire of our own making to put this story on the page in front of you, of me, of us all.
 
 
 

The stomachache shuffled off by the evening, but what I read that afternoon stayed in my gut.

I’ve been writing and laughing for two days because Flannery O’Connor gave me a talking-to about what I love most, which is writing and making art. In that same essay, she rounds out her wallop by saying—
 
 

    Now in every writing class you find people who care nothing about writing, because they think are already writers by virtue of some experience they had.  It is fact that if, either by nature or training, these people can learn to write badly enough, they can make a great deal of money, and in a way it seems a shame to deny them this opportunity; but then, unless the college is a trade school, it still has its responsibility to truth, and I believe myself that these people should be stifled with all deliberate speed.

 
 

I told you the first excerpt was one of her nicer statements.  Now you believe me. 

That furrow between my light brown brows? That furrow means I’m paying attention. That furrow means I earned it the hard way. I got that furrow from laughing, too.

But, mostly, I earned that furrow by bathing in the flames of the fire I built. I’m building that fire right now.

And if I do it right, do it as a deliberate, meaningful act— it will crackle and pop for the both of us.