Week five: In which Time fails to stretch, and monkeys wear Rolexes

I find myself down to three workshoppers, with one session to go. I'd hoped the others might come back. I don't think they will. So that's the paragraphing exercise right out. Never doing that again.

It kills me to lose people. As a teacher, you love working with those students of ample ability who cheerfully stick it out long enough to fly, because then you get to watch them fly; you hope those people discover something new in the process, and feel that you've challenged their intelligence and ability in a worthy fashion. But the people you really want to keep are those who come to you feeling uncertain about their skill, who feel like they're struggling, or even feel unconvinced, on some level, that writing is something worth doing. Not all of those students fly-- but when they do, however briefly, it's something to see.

Writers don't do enough for each other. We can be very selfish, and too quick to dismiss those would-be writers who show little immediate promise. More than anything, when I teach, I want students-- whether they aspire to write seriously or not-- go away feeling they've done something they didn't know they had in them to do. That's everything. I don't care how good they are; I don't care whether they go on to be great and productive authors. I don't care whether or not they ever come to love language or literature as much as I do. I just want them to find out how capable they really are-- to see that the task is not beyond them, and that it's not necessary to be a certain, special kind of person to appreciate art, or to make art.

Last night we talked about point of view, and spent far too long discussing the Flannery O'Connor story from last week-- then we ran out of time. The story is fascinating for the way in which it defies firm answers. Read it if you haven't.

Point of view, and the viewpoint character

The point of view you choose will-- like narrative voice-- often be a matter of what feels right at the time, but there are advantages to testing out other points of view. The first and limited third persons occur most commonly in modern fiction, and both can be limited in that they trap you-- and your reader-- in the mind of a single viewpoint character. That closeness can be a bonus, however, in terms of narrative intimacy. Likewise, while limited third person can allow shifts to other characters' perspectives, the shifts themselves can be tricky to navigate; an omniscient or an involved narrator can allow such shifts to happen a little more easily.

Ultimately, the point of view you choose depends not just upon what feels right, but which characters' perspectives are important to the story. Presenting your character from a different point of view can shed a different sort of light on that character; experimenting with different points of view can sometimes yield surprising results.

Exercise: Take a passage from the scene you wrote, and rewrite it using a different point of view-- choose one from those suggested in chapter seven of Le Guin (p. 91-3). How does the result differ from the previous version-- how does the story change? Did you learn anything about your character by looking at him or her through a different lens?

None of that is to say that it isn't possible to make shifts from one character's perspective to the next-- only that it needs to be done with a good deal of forethought. Ask yourself: whose perspective best sheds light on the action taking place? Does Character A see things the same way as Character B? Might the contrast in their perspectives be interesting?

Exercise: "Changing Voices," Le Guin p. 109-110. Try some quick shifts in limited third: narrate a short scene involving several people, in which something happens; move from one viewpoint character to another as necessary, or as is interesting.


Dialogue isn't just characters chatting: it's part of what drives a scene. What characters say can tell you much about who they are. More than that, the things they say can change the course of events in a story. It's important to make every word of dialogue count.

Exercise: "Telling it Slant," Le Guin p. 119-120. Write a page or two of pure dialogue-- a conversation between two characters. Something should be happening to them; their conversation should imply what's happening. Note that in order for the dialogue to seem like real conversation, you will need to prevent your characters form simply describing their actions to one another; find ways to indicate what's happening without literally describing the action.

Assignment for next time:

Read Grace Paley's "In Time Which Made a Monkey of Us All", and Le Guin Chapters 9&10.

"Being the Stranger", Le Guin p. 122-23. Write a short narrative using a viewpoint character whom you feel is alien to you in some way-- it can be someone whom you dislike or disagree with-- but it's not necessary for the character to be unlikeable; it can just as easily be someone whose experience is simply different from your own. The scene should involve at least two characters, and something that happens between them, or to them.


Head music: Big Strides - She Drinks Whiskey
via Last.fm


spacedlaw said...

The monkey exercise if difficult. At least for me: I can't write a character I can't empathize with. I need to know what makes them move, breathe, get up every morning.

Jess said...

Which is why I love the exercise: it forces a writer to work out why other people are the way they are. You get to try on different hats. :)