The choice of first person or third person centers on distance. Do you want close-up, intimate, immediate, involved writing? First person does a better job of that. Do you want to stand back for an overview, deal with more characters, more descriptions of people and settings? Third person would be a better choice.
When the New Journalists of the early 1960s were experimenting with the kind of creative nonfiction writing we're talking about here, they were criticized for putting the journalist too much in the forefront. In a sort of overreaction to all the years when journalists had to stay totally, absolutely invisible, some writers did push themselves so much stage-front that the limelight fell on them rather than on the characters or the events about which they were writing. Tom Wolfe led the way at the time, but in his more recent work, including The Right Stuff, he stays largely in the background, although we know he's present. We like having Tom Wolfe present. He says in his book The New Journalism that some of the best writing of this "new" kind has been done in third person. He mentions writers like Capote, Talese, and John Gregory Dunne as examples of people who write in a personal voice but use third person.
Third person point of view has less immediacy than first person and always has an impersonal voice. The narrator seems to stand above it all, but there are limits to how much he or she is "allowed" to observe as a nonparticipant in the action. Literary convention allows the third person narrator some latitude. In fiction, the omniscient narrator may enter any or all characters' minds. He or she may observe any action anywhere. In creative nonfiction, however, the writer has less latitude, less omniscience. He or she is limited by the facts available to a character or reasonably deducible by that character. Historical biographies, for example, use this kind of third-person narrative, a narrator whose camera has a wide-angle lens. Other writers of nonfiction carry a literary camera with interchangeable lenses, one of which is a close-up lens. The best way to make clear this distinction between third person (close-up) and third person (panoramic or wide-angle) may be through two passages from the same book, The Right Stuff. Both passages deal with Alan Shepard's first orbital flight. The first takes place within the tiny capsule where we not only see Shepard close up, we go inside his mind (the ultimate close-up). The second passage shows us what happens soon after Shepard arrives in New York City. Tom Wolfe takes off the close-up lens and inserts the wide-angle lens to enable the narrator to watch Alan go by on parade, and then he widens his lens to include Alan's hometown and New England—all in the same third person. These two passages show the versatility of third person point of view.
In this part of the story, Shepard had forgotten to take the filter off the capsule's periscope, so he was seeing everything on Earth in black and white—yet he knew that the folks back home wanted to hear about it in color:
"What a beautiful view!" he said. He could hear Slayton say: "I bet it is." In fact, there was a cloud cover over most of the East Coast and much of the ocean. He was able to see the Cape. He could see the west coast of Florida.. .Lake Okeechobee____He was up so high he seemed to be moving away from Florida ever so slowly____ And the inverters moaned up and the gyros moaned down and the fans whirred and the cameras hummed____He tried to find Cuba. Was that Cuba or wasn't that Cuba? Over there, through the clouds____Everything was black and white and there were clouds all over____ There's
Bimini Island and the shoals around Bimini. He could see that. But everything looked so small! It had all been bigger and clear in the ALFA trainer, when they flashed the still photos on the screen____The real thing didn't measure up. It was not realistic.
He couldn't see anything but a medium-gray ocean and the light-gray beaches and the dark-gray vegetation..
We know Tom Wolfe has snapped on the close-up lens as soon as we hear those inverters, gyros, fans, cameras. Then he really goes in tight on Alan Shepard when we hear the astronaut thinking about Cuba and whether he's seeing it or not. The irony of his thought that the flight simulation had been more realistic than the real thing follows. He stays in close with sounds that Alan Shepard could have heard (and no sounds that he could not reasonably have heard), and then enters the man's mind as he watches the world through his periscope. We eavesdrop on a brain at work—the ultimate in personal writing—yet we do it in third person, which we tend to think of as the impersonal point of view. The scene is even more personal and up close than if Wolfe had used the first person and had Shepard telling us what he'd thought back then in the capsule. Instead, Wolfe shows us Shepard's thought processes. Naturally, Wolfe had not been inside Shepard's mind. He interviewed Alan Shepard about his thoughts and then re-created them for us in this interior monolog. The values and challenges of using this technique in creative nonfiction are addressed in Chapter 8.
Now, let's watch as Wolfe shows us the Broadway ticker-tape parade with his wide-angle lens:
The next day New York City gave Al a ticker-tape parade up Broadway. There was Al on the back ledge of the limousine, with all that paper snow and confetti coming down just the way you used to see it in the Movietone News in the theaters. Al's hometown, Derry, New Hampshire, which was not much more than a village, gave Al a parade, and it drew the biggest crowd the state had ever seen. Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force, and National Guard troops from all over New England marched down Main Street, and acrobatic teams of jet fighters flew overhead____
Switching points of view back and forth in a piece tends to confuse the reader, but handled right, it's possible to switch points of view successfully. C. D. B. Bryan, author of Friendly Fire, wrote in the third person as he told about how the young soldier, Michael
Mullin, was killed accidentally by our own guns. As soon as the writer went to visit Michael's parents, however, Bryan switched to the first person. Because this was the first time he had come into the story himself, the switch to first person seemed totally natural. No reader could have been confused by that switch—and he didn't switch back to third person.
A similar type of single switch occurs in Joe Eszterhas's much-praised story, "Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse" (collected by Tom Wolfe in The New Journalism), when he tells the story in third person until the end. At that point, he does come into the story to explain to his readers how he happened to come upon the story and how he worked on it. Again, this kind of simple, single shift of point of view is allowable because there's no danger that the reader will wonder what's going on.
Jane Kramer begins her book The Last Cowboy in first person, telling us how she came to write about cowboy life and, particularly, why she selected Henry Blanton to write about. After she explains a bit about her method of working with Henry and his wife, she ducks out of the limelight and lets it fall almost totally on Henry for the remaining 95 percent of the book. No problem here.
Michael Herr's excellent book Dispatches, reporting on life for the U.S. Marines fighting in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, uses multiple points of view as Herr switches from talking about specific marines in the third person to giving his own, noncombatant's feelings in the first person. Wisely, he kept the limelight on the fighting marines most of the time, only returning occasionally to himself. By doing it proportionately like that, he accomplished two objectives. First, we believed what he wrote partly because of the captured conversations with the marines, which kept our eyes and ears on the young fighting men. Second, by occasional references to himself he reminded us, unobtrusively, that this was not a secondhand report written in a Saigon bar; this man was sitting there in the slit trench, head down, talking with these men. So, it's a matter of proportion. Above all, keep in mind whose story you're telling, and keep the grammatical person appropriate for telling that particular story. Then, if needed (and only if needed), switch point of view.
Then there's the very deliberate, very conscious, very artistic use of multiple points of view. Tom Wolfe makes an art of switching points of view in the middle of a story, in the middle of a paragraph, in the middle of a sentence. At times the reader is confused, I imagine, but Wolfe is always going for the overall effect, tone, and feeling for the scene rather than trying to keep the reader right on track every moment. In his book The New Journalism Wolfe writes about an article he wrote:
I began a story on Baby Jane Holzer, entitled "The Girl of the Year," as follows:
Bangs manes bouffant beehives Beatle caps butter faces brush-on lashes decal eyes puffy sweaters French thrust bras flailing leather blue jeans stretch pants stretch jeans honeydew bottoms eclair shanks elf boots ballerinas Knight slippers, hundreds of them, these flaming little buds, bobbing and screaming, rocketing around inside the Academy of Music Theater underneath that vast old moldering cherub dome up there—aren't they super-marvelous!
"Aren't they super-marvelous!" says Baby Jane, and then, "Hi, Isabel! Isabel! You want to sit backstage—with the Stones!"
The show hasn't even started yet, the Rolling Stones aren't even on the stage, the place is full of a great shabby moldering dimness, and these flaming little buds.
Girls are reeling this way and that way in the aisle and through their huge black decal eyes, sagging with Tiger Tongue Lick Me brush-on eyelashes and black appliques, sagging like display-window Christmas trees, they keep staring at—her—Baby Jane—on the aisle.
After Tom Wolfe's clever opening paragraph that presents the reality of the teenagers' lifestyle through a disembodied narrator in a third person point of view, he switches to Baby Jane's third person point of view. The switch occurs with the phrase, "aren't they super-marvelous!" When the text gets down to "they keep staring at-her-Baby Jane-on the aisle," Wolfe has switched the point of view again. This time, we're seeing the scene through the eyes of the young buds as they look at Baby Jane. He uses three points of view in this piece—his own, the young girls', and Baby Jane's. It's all rather subtly done, and we end up with an understanding of how it must have felt to be there in the Academy of Music surrounded by all those noises and bobbing buds.
Tom Wolfe went on to say: "Eventually a reviewer called me a 'chameleon' who constantly took on the coloration of whomever he was writing about. He meant it negatively. I took it as a great compliment. A chameleon.. .but exactly!"
I have coined the name for this point of view because I'm unaware of an official name for it, although I suspect it's what Tom Wolfe called the "downstage voice," not a bad label for people familiar with the stage. What I'm about to describe also has a chameleon quality to it. Tom Wolfe is one of the few writers to make artistic use of this technique, as he does in this excerpt from a piece that helped earn him a reputation for innovation back in 1965. "The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!" chronicles the lifestyle of Junior Johnson, the famous stock car racer and former moonshine runner. Wolfe uses the first and the third person as called for, but he periodically switches to what at first sounds like a different point of view, like someone else at the race. Reading on, we find that the narrator is still Tom Wolfe, but now he's talking just like a good ol' boy. So, it's not truly a different point of view, it's a pseudo point of view, a sort-of-but-not-quite-new point of view. We're sort oof hearing from a new angle (maybe I should call it "point of hearing"). Wolfe accomplishes this sometimes with a single word that we realize immediately is not the sophisticated, East Coast Tom Wolfe-with-the-white-shoes voice, yet we can hear that he's still there, guiding things along. Sometimes he lets us hear long passages in the local lingo.
God! The Alcohol Tax agents used to burn over Junior Johnson. Practically every good old boy in town in Wilkesboro, the county seat, got to know the agents by sight in a very short time. They would rag them practically to their faces on the subject of Junior Johnson, so that it got to be an obsession. Finally, one night they had Junior trapped on the road up toward the bridge around Millersville, there's no way out of there, they had barricades up and they could hear this souped-up car roaring around the bend, and here it comes—but suddenly they can hear a siren and see a red light flashing in the grill, so they think it's another agent, and boy, they run out like ants and pull those barrels and boards and sawhorses out of the way, and then—Ggghzzzzhhhggggzzzzzzeeeeong!— gawdam! there he goes again, it was him, Junior Johnson!, with a gawdam agent's si-reen and a red light in his grill!
Perhaps we can't tell immediately that Wolfe has switched into a pseudo point of view, but we can certainly tell when we get down to,
"Finally, one night they had Junior trapped____" From there on, the almost continuous run-on sentence of about one hundred words sounds like someone telling a tale. We hear the pseudo-narrator imitating the sound of Junior ripping through the would-be roadblock. Then Wolfe hits us with a couple of "gawdams" and the sound of a "si-reen." We know it's not Wolfe, yet it's no one else identifiable. We know that the Wolfe lurks nearby.
Joe Eszterhas opened his article "Charlie Simpson's Apocalypse" with an excellent example of a pseudo point of view. It starts out sounding like a normal third person narrative in a personal voice, but it gradually becomes something else.
Right after the sun comes up, first thing folks do around Harrisonville, Missouri, is to go up to the barn and see if the mare is still there. Horse-thieves drive around the gravel roads and brushy hills in tractor-trailers looking to rustle lazyboned nags. Then they grind them up into bags of meat jelly for the dogfood people. It's getting so bad that a man can't live in peace anywhere, not even on his own plot of land.
Harrisonville is just 42 miles southeast of Kansas City along Interstate 71, just down the blacktop from the red brick farmhouse where Harry S. Truman, haberdasher and President, was born. The little town is filled with weeping willows, alfalfa, Longhorn steer, and Black Whiteface cows. Life should be staid and bucolic, a slumbering leftover of what everyone who buys the $3.00 Wednesday night Catfish Dinner at Scott's Bar B-Q calls Them Good Old Days. But it isn't like that anymore.
There's always some botheration to afflict a man these days and if it isn't the horse-thieves or the velvetleaf that plagued the soybeans last year, then it's them vagrant tornadoes.
I've arbitrarily broken his text into paragraphs that illustrate how he's used a combination of normal third-person point of view and pseudo point of view. In the final sentences of the first paragraph we can clearly hear the voice of someone local, even though the first few sentences are not too clearly third or pseudo. The second paragraph is a straight third-person point of view. We hear the voice of the outside writer/narrator. It's written in a personal voice, but it's not the voice of the local person we think we heard at the end of the first paragraph. The third paragraph sounds like a local person's point of view, yet he or she is not identified: It's the writer deliberately making the narrator sound more in touch with the place and the people—a pseudo point of view.
It takes a writer with a sensitive, well-tuned ear to simulate a local person's voice. Not very many writers attempt it, but it's an excellent technique for the creative nonfiction writer if handled cleverly and in good taste.
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