Stories emerge from various perspectives. In a narrative, it is not safe to assume that the perspective is the writer's. As we have heard from some of the writers whom I quoted in earlier chapters, the story sometimes has a will of its own, as do the characters that impel it. Of course, everything you write comes from you and, on some level, speaks your truth. But fiction, and fictive techniques in nonfiction, allow us that magical leap of imagination. Even though an Alice Munro story is told from a first person perspective, that first person is not necessarily Munro.
First Person: I
Narratives told in the first person use the pronoun I. This perspective is useful for frame stories as it naturalizes reminiscence. First person is tricky, too. It disallows movement out of the narrator's consciousness. That is, all observations are limited to one perspective. Sometimes, first-person narratives can seem burdened by their narrators' obsessions or self-reflection. Writing a first-person narrative requires careful balance of interiority and observation.
Rewrite the first two paragraphs of Section III in Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." The story is written in the third person; rewrite the paragraphs in the first person.
1. Is it a smooth transition?
2. What must be omitted? Added?
Like "The Body," James Joyce's "Araby" is told as a memory, although the narrator is never contextualized in the present day. However, we have certain cues that the narrator is recounting events from a more mature perspective. The sophistication of language, the emotional distance from the events, the sophistication of insight, and the understanding of social systems indicate an adult narrator.
Contrast this first person with the earlier excerpts from Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, which also chronicles childhood events through a first-person narrator. Cisneros' Esperanza is experiencing childhood and adolescence as she tells her story. The story's emotions are enriched by this immediacy, which lends the narrative an integrity— the reader recognizes the voice of a child.
I contrast these two narratives only to exemplify the different possibilities for a first person narrative. Each writer creates different impressions through their techniques. While we appreciate the poignancy of Esperanza's voice, we also appreciate the careful analysis already performed on the memories in "Araby." That analysis can be performed only with some distance from the story.
Using the childhood or remembered event you wrote in the frame story exercise, follow the steps below. Of course, you can use any memory or invented memory for this exercise.
1. Freewrite for 10 minutes detailing the event or condition.
2. Now rewrite the narrative from the perspective of someone immediately experiencing the events. Try making that narrator a child.
3. Rewrite again as an adult or as someone radically distanced from that time in his life. (For example, you might write from the point of view of an ex-con who is remembering an event that happened 20 years ago in prison.)
Did anything strike you about the difference between writing immediate experience and writing from a distance? If you write creative nonfiction, you may already be aware of this difference. While immediate narratives, which usually use the present tense, elicit palpal-ble emotion, narratives written from a distant perspective offer the reader the benefit of analysis. Think about events in your own life. If you were to tell the story of the loud argument you had with your mother-in-law over white vs. brown gravy last Thanksgiving, you might still be seething from her insults. However, if you're telling that story now, having experienced the argument 20 years ago, 19 intervening Thanksgivings would have tempered your emotion and her recalled insults would not have that raw edge.
1. Consider your most recent experience of pleasure or joy.
2. Freewrite for 10 minutes. Use as much sensual detail as you
3. Rewrite the experience as if it happened 10 years ago.
4. Write a childhood memory of a similar pleasure or joy from tive.
5. Rewrite it as if you were still a child.
Third Person: He/She/It/They
Willa Cather's "Paul's Case" is written in third-person omniscient point-of-view. This omniscience reveals the story from varying perspectives. For example, although Paul is the primary character, he is interpreted through various other characters, as well as through the narrator's assessment. Notice that the narrator plays a significant role in this story, although the narrator is not embodied or specified. Interestingly, the teachers are not individualized, but they collectively respond to Paul with aversion and shame for that aversion. In their collective response, the teachers work something like a Greek chorus, signaling the reader how to think about Paul. This strategy keeps Paul at a distance, which makes sense of the title, "Paul's Case." Clearly, we are expected to read Paul with an emotional distance, even aversion, as if he were not so much a character as a psychological study.
Cather's narration could be achieved only with an omniscient point-of-view. Bierce's "Occurrence..." is also told from a third-person perspective. This narrative is third-person limited. In this case, the perspective is limited to Peyton Farquar. The story has a narrator, a consciousness that cannot be conflated with Farquar's, but that also is not a character in the story. And again, the narrator cannot be conflated with the writer.
the your current perspec-
Rewrite the ending of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by shifting it to first person. Now try rewriting a section of "Paul's Case" in first person.
Second Person: You
Occasionally, narratives are told in second person. Using the pronoun, you, second person calls the reader into the story in an arresting manner. Edna O'Brien's compelling novel, A Pagan Place, effectively employs the second-person point-of-view. As you read the excerpt below, consider how the second person affects your placement in the text.
The pampas grass was in wayward clusters, more blue than green. It was a foreign grass, stiff in stem and with a knife edge. It was from the old days, the gone days, when the place had its ornamental garden. You put that part of your hand between thumb and forefinger to the knife edge, that flap which if it got cut could lead to lockjaw. That was courting disaster. The grass was scythed once a month, the hedge clipped. Nettles had to be kept at bay. Nettles had a white flower that no one admired. She sent you around the fields to gather some for young chickens. She gave you a saucepan and shears and told you to drop them directly as you cut them, so as to protect your hands. You suffered a few stings to be devout. You crooned and bari-toned in order to intimidate small animals that were lurking in briars and low coverts of foliage.
—Edna O'Brien, A Pagan Place
In this narrative, you has a specific context. That is, the second person is a named character with a mother, a landscape. In fact, reading this novel, I often forgot the second person narrative. But it functions differently from the first person and suits this kind of story. The reader is able to enter the consciousness of the young girl, the you of this novel. In many ways, the story is hers. And yet, were it told in first person, many observations and explanations of the adult behavior around her would not be possible.
The second person can function more like an instructional address in some narratives. This style can be effective, as well, but is often jarring. When the second person identifies the reader more specifically than a character, the narrative can be difficult to sustain.
1. Go back to one of your first-person narratives. Try rewriting it in second person. Can you easily replace / with you?
2. Freewrite a second-person narrative in which you directly address the reader. Your narrative may take on a directional tone. What do you notice about this process?
3. Now try using the second person as a character, as O'Brien does, rather than an address to the reader. How is this approach different from step 2?
FORM AND GENRE
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