No, you didn't. Yes, he did.

I was surprised, recently, when my husband told me that he doesn't like stories which use first-person narration. For some reason, he just can't bring himself to make the imaginative leap a reader needs to make, along with the writer, for that particular point of view to succeed. He just doesn't buy it. When a narrator tells him that he did this, or said that, or went there, hubby wants to say, "No, you didn't." First-person narration is a commonplace technique in fiction writing these days; you'd think it wouldn't bother readers, similar to the way that close-up shots of people on film don't bother us. We know that when we see, for example, that head-and-shoulder panning shot of Legolas near the beginning of The Two Towers-- you know, the one where he yells, "They're taking the hobbits to Isengard"-- we're still looking at a person, even though we can't see his feet. The only explanation I can come up with for my hub's discomfort with the first-person point of view is that it tends, perhaps, to call attention to itself more than other narrative perspectives: there's something more confrontational, maybe, in a narrator who talks about himself rather than about someone else.

It's issues like that which make verb tense and point of view tricky concepts to teach in a workshop-- tricky to explain and tricky to write. To work on the page, both need to be mostly invisible to the reader. Usually when I teach them, I tell students to pick a single tense and a single point of view, and stick with it. Don't fool around, I tell them. This doesn't mean, of course, that it's not possible to fool around. But you really have to know what you're doing. A change in tense or point of view halfway through a narrative is a big deal; it sets the story spinning off in a whole other direction, and the writer has to be absolutely certain that the reader can follow. I still get nervous whenever I try it. My teachers, y'see, told me not to fool around.

The next exercise in Le Guin's Steering the Craft, which deals with how tense and point of view work together, is longer and more complicated than some of the others in the book. I found that I had to write several versions of the first part of the exercise before I settled on something I liked. I think my Version One is a much stronger one than Version Two.

This should run about a page or so; keep it short and not too ambitious, because you're going to have to write the same story at least twice.

The subject is this: An old woman is washing the dishes, or gardening, or editing a Ph.D. dissertation in mathematics, or...whatever you like, as she thinks about an event that happened in her youth.

You're going to write this sketch by intercutting between the two times. "Now" is the kitchen, the garden, the desk, whatever, and "then" is what happened when she was young. Your narration will move back and forth between "now" and "then." There should be at least two of these moves or time-jumps.

Version One:

Choose a PERSON:
a) first person (I)
b) third person (her name/she)

Choose a TENSE:
a) all in past tense
b) all in present tense
c) "now" in present tense, "then" in past tense
d) "now" in past tense, "then" in present tense

Write the story. Label it-- Person (a), Tenses (c)-- or whichever you chose.

Version Two: Now write the same story in the other person and a different choice of tenses (Label it.)

Don't strain to keep the wording of the two versions identical, and please don't just go through it on a computer changing the pronoun and verb endings. Write it over. Changing the person and tense will almost certainly bring about some changes in the wording, the telling; and these changes are interesting.

Within one version, the verb tense may shift, but the person of the verb can't. Stick with either "I" or "she" in Version One. Then use the other person in Version Two.

Additional Option: If you want to go on and play with all four tense options, do.

Another Additional Option: After you have done the exercise as directed, if you want to change the person of the verb within one version (using one person in "now," the other person in "then"), try it. (Le Guin 76-8)*

Version One - Person (b), Tense (a)
The cut was deep. Blanche dropped the utility knife on the carpet and marched from the room without a word, sucking at the wound on her finger. Josie had been right, of course. She should never have tried to use it; she couldn't grip the handle properly. She wished now that she had thought to bring the knife with her. In another moment Josie would find it, and come running; she couldn't bear the idea of her niece hovering, fussing, telling her to wash it well, and put some peroxide on it, and wrap this way, and put pressure on it, hold it tight and sit still, Aunt B., just wait till I find my keys; now come on, we're going to the ER...

Blanche padded into the bathroom and ran the cut under the cold water tap. The cut stung dreadfully, almost like a burn; Blanche could see the spongy layer beneath, pink and raw in the running water, welling up again with blood the moment she removed it. She plunged her hand back under the stream and clenched her teeth. She wouldn't call out. How Josie hollered, that time she skinned her knee on the sidewalk! Blanche made Josie stick her leg under the bathtub faucet, then accidentally turned on the hot water instead of the cold; Josie yelled and tried to hit her. Blanche frowned at the blood oozing from her own fingertip. The poor kid! Blanche had never really understood how much it must have hurt; she only remembered Josie's bony little fist in her shoulder, and the look she'd given Blanche, when Blanche slapped her. Something fell out of Josie, then, out of both of them. Blanche saw it in her face, and knew Josie could see it in hers. It left a blank space. What was it, that thing which wasn't there any more? She nearly called out to Josie, then, in her fright; she squeezed her lips firmly together.

Blanche shut off the water and wound a length of gauze slowly round her fingertip, listening to Josie grumbling, pushing something heavy across the carpet. She tugged at the end of the strip of gauze, pulled it tight, fastened it with tape. Any minute now. Blanche pulled the little wicker stool from beneath the vanity and sat on it. Any minute now-- but there wouldn't be anything for Josie to do. Blanche noticed a patch of blood beginning to show through her bandage. She gripped her finger with her opposite hand and squeezed to stop the flow. Any minute now. She wouldn't call out. There wasn't any need.

The muttering and the shoving-sounds ceased. "Aunt B.?" Josie called. There.

Blanche called cheerfully back. "I'm fine," she said. "There's nothing to worry about."

Version Two - Person (a), Tense (a), though with a bit of (c)

The moment the knife sliced into my fingertip, I knew I should never have tried to use it on the box. Of course Josie had been right: I really couldn't grip the thing properly. It was a stupid thing to have done. Josie still had her back to me; I dropped the box cutter and headed for the bathroom, sucking the blood from the wound as I went. It would only be a matter of time before she found the knife on the floor and came running to make a fuss, to see that I washed the cut well, and bandaged it tight, and applied pressure, and before you'd know it we'd be on our way to the ER...I couldn't be doing with all that nonsense. I ran my finger under the cold water tap. I knew well enough how to take care of a cut.

A person never really understands how much ordinary water can sting, not till they've hurt themselves badly enough. It burns. That time Josie skinned her knee running down the hill, and I cleaned the wound for her-- she didn't just yell. She tried to hit me. Poor kid. How was I to know that her father had reconnected the plumbing the wrong way around, so the hot water came out when the cold should have come instead? I shouldn't have smacked her. It was my fault that she fell-- I was the one who'd shouted Let's run, then dragged her off by the hand-- and we both knew it.

I've never been so sorry for doing a thing as I was standing there at the sink, gritting my teeth and watching the blood from my finger swirl away through the soap bubbles. I didn't yell, I didn't tell Josie, but I was sorry. All the same, I didn't call out; I bandaged up my finger, then sat down on the little vanity stool to wait. She'd turn up, before long. Then I'd smile, and Josie would see that everything was fine after all.

Blanche and Josie, by the way, are two characters from a novel I've never yet managed to finish. I think this exercise may have shed some light on an aspect of their relationship that I've been puzzling over for a while-- the lesson being that it can be useful to go back and revisit characters you've worked with before in a new context.

Coming soon: Is it ever a good idea to paint your new writing room a shade called Winsome Beige?


*Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 76-8.


spacedlaw said...

Winsome beige sounds utterly boring but probably would not be as distracting as a stronger colour.

Funny enough, Cesare as well has problem with first person narratives. I quite enjoy writing them, also because it helps me empathize with my character.

I might try that exercise.
Or not.

Jess said...

Oh do! It takes some time, but it's worth it.

I wanted the office to be light-- and the paint sample, at least, had more taupe-ish tones than what's ended up on the wall. In the wrong light it looks...pinker than I'd like. In other light it looks okay. At least it goes with the woodwork!

The Goldfish said...

Personally, I think I have a slight preference for reading in the first person; it seems more natural that the author as God, who can apparently see some things and not others. I think a lot depends on genre - I can't imagine a romance in the first person, a detective mystery might be tricky. But there's more immediacy, more tension in say thriller-writing in the first person.

You are being taken on the same journey as I am, you are going to see and hear and feel what I do and I'm not going to keep anything from you. A third-person narrative has to keep some stuff from you.

The novel is in the first person, but I have found it useful, on a number of occasions, to re-write (in the rough) a tricky passage in either the third person or from the point of view of someone other than the narrator. It can help sort out the wood from the trees, perhaps as with your two characters.

Jess said...

Oddly enough, Le Guin takes the view that first person narration can actually be more limited than other points of view. While first person lends a feeling of authenticity to a story, she says, and allows the reader and writer to get very close to the character telling the story, it also locks you exclusively into their perspective: you can only see, hear and feel what that charcter sees, hears, or feels. It offers little if any opportunity to drop in on the viewpoint of other characters, or to describe things which the narrator isn't able to see but might still be relevant to the story. I thought that an interesting point, one I'd never really considered.

I like to read both, but tend to favor the third person when I write (usually limited third). It gives me a lot of freedom to shift around from one character to nother, and even to lift the camera away from the action to have a look around at things my viewpoint character might not see.

I like to use that rewriting-from-a-different-POV trick, too, especially when I get stuck (though in the case of That Story, I think I may have ended up rewriting the thing to death in the process). One of my profs used to encourage us to rewrite in a different POV after a first draft, just in order to understand why we'd chosen the one we had instead of another. That's kind of a time-consuming thing to do, but it can be illuminating, too.

What I'm finding about these exercises where you write, then rewrite, is that they're really forcing me to slow down-- which in turn forces me to consider aspects of the story I wouldn't have otherwise. You could almost substitute it for note cards and outlining-- well, at least that's the case for me.

Jess said...

Phew! Check out all those typos. It's like I'm only hitting half the keys as I type. What gives? What happened to my fine motor skills?

spacedlaw said...

Ready? Steady. Go!

A+B (I + Present)

I stroll down the aisles, disconsolate. I hate shopping for clothes at the best of times and now with an obligation – the selection of an outfit for a formal occasion – the burden weights at least twice as much on my shoulder. I’d rather be in a bookshop.
The sales assistant is competent and she has all the conservative taste which I miss. I have problems getting excited about her finds but the clothes are decent and seem of good quality: With a bit of luck, the selected outfit might last me ten or twenty years and save me for further ordeal. I shake my head thinking of my younger self. The alternative clothing, the wild 80’s make-up. The economy teacher is looking me up and down a stern look of disapproval on her face, fishnet stockings and fedoras not items on her definition of suitable law student attire. I remember being disappointed in her narrow-mindness.
The sales’ assistant pulls me out of memory lane, holding up a very Chanel-ly outfit. A dark green suit. Suddenly I am having hot flashes.
I am fourteen and coming back early from school. My working at home father is nowhere to be seen but an emerald jacket with a Chanel type cloth is draped over the sofa. Puzzled I try to make my way to the back of the apartment when my father comes out of my parents bedroom, looking pale and telling me he has a headache: would I go and buy him some aspirin?
“Are you alright?” asks the girl jolting me back thirty years later. Apparently I have gone all white. Funny how some memories do cling like nasty pieces of used chewing gum at the bottom of our souls.

B+A (She + Past time)

She was strolling the aisles of the shop, feeling sorry for herself. She hated shopping for clothes at the best of times already and she had been forced into retail by a pressing formal affair. She resented this bitterly. She would have preferred the shelter of a bookshop.
Fortunately, the sales girl was competent and had a sound feeling for what would be right for the occasion. The older woman had difficulties in getting enthusiastic about her choices but found some comfort in finding the clothes to be of good quality: With a bit of luck she could keep them another ten to twenty years and avoid such miserable treks again. She enjoyed a private joke at the thought of her youth and the clothes she had worn then. Alternative and paired with flash 80’s make-up. The economy teacher had disapproved thoroughly of her choice of apparel: Fishnet stockings and fedoras had not been part of the traditional costume for law students. She had been very disappointed in her teacher’s narrow-mindness.
She was pulled out of memory lane by an intervention of the sales assistant who was presenting a Chanel-like suit for her approval. Dark green. She’s is suddenly reeling from shock.
When she was fourteen she had come home one day, early from school. Her working at home father had been nowhere to be seen but she had noticed an. emerald green jacket draped loosely over the sofa. She had been trying to think the mystery of her father’s disappearance on the way to her room when he had suddenly come out of her parents’ bedroom looking a little pale and claiming a thunderous headache. She had then been requested to go and buy some aspirin.
She was pulled back to the present again – a thirty years jolt - by the shop girl asking if she was alright: She had gone all white.
Funny how some memories did seem to cling like nasty pieces of used chewing gum at the bottom of people’s souls.

Jess said...

Badaboom, badabing! \o/ These are fun, aren't they? I like messing with different narrative styles and voices. These exercises have sent me in a lot of interesting directions I wouldn't have taken otherwise, had I just sat down plugged away like usual.

I like that you choose some very simple but significant images to focus on in these: fishnet stockings, a fedora, particularly the green jacket. I actually wonder how different the narration might be if the scene were to begin with the green suit, and the memory, rather than leading up to and ending on it-- that seems to be where the most significant action occurs-- not to mention the part of the story that matters most to you. The narration comes especially alive at that point.

(I wonder whether something like "distracted" or "listless" might be the word you're after? "Disconsolate" is a very strong word-- a person's disconsolate on the death of a spouse or close friend. Mind you, I got pretty close when I went looking for a new blouse the other day. I hate Macy's. Two whole floors of nothing! Rubbish. But I digress.)

spacedlaw said...

Believe me, "disconsolate" is almost a euphemism...

Jess said...

For shopping? :D I like it!

I went back and bought a blouse last night. It is brown. I'm not in love with it, but it fits and it didn't cost too much. That's about as much joy as I ever get out of clothes shopping.