Poetry and Point of View

Apart from a few poems I’ve written, and poems written by people I’ve known, I’ve never felt an intimate connection with poetry. Where most stories pull me in to one degree or another, I tend to connect with poetry on an intellectual level. And I’m not talking about the whole question of poetic analysis, which I have no interest in. I’m talking about how poetry affects me emotionally — or rather doesn’t affect me.

I respect good art of all types, including poetry, but stories somehow transcend. A painting, a sculpture, a poem — all of these things can be wonderful, but for me a narrative has an extra dimension. Were I compelled to define that dimension I would point to suspension of disbelief. (More on suspension of disbelief here and here.)

I can appreciate and understand poetry as lyric, as image, as expression. I can understand the point of a poem, intuit the author’s perspective, and even chase allusions and literary references if the mood suits me, which it almost never does. (I seem to have sated the desire to play find-the-hidden object as a child, while reading Highlights in my dentist’s waiting room.)

What I’ve wanted from poetry — and again, I admit this is my bias — is to be involved emotionally. Not to the exclusion of reason or art, not simply as an excuse for drama, but as a foundation. I’ve wanted to feel myself merge with a poem, but over time I came to believe I never would. And then, one day, I came across a short, fourteen-line poem by Robert Frost, called Once By The Pacific. The full poem still fails to sustain a connection with me: I understand the point of it, but by the end I’m reading it, not living it. Four of the first six lines, however, not only changed my mind about what poetry can be, they brought into focus a craft issue that I had never heard anyone talk about before.  Read more ]

WIG&TSSIP: Irony and Point of View

The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.

Like most people I have a rudimentary understanding of irony. I know there’s a difference between coincidence and irony, but I’ve never spent a lot of time plumbing the depths of the distinction. If you and I run into each other at a store we’re both visiting for the first time, I know that’s a coincidence. And if we I run into each other at a fast-food joint after we just spent several hours talking about our healthy lifestyles, that’s ironic.

In life, then, irony requires some kind of context. It’s not enough that something happens. In order to be ironic, an event needs to have meaning that stands apart from the event. We recognize irony in our lives when our point of view allows us to see both aspects at once: the coincidence (or ‘happening’) and the context (ironic meaning).

As Hills notes, creating irony in fiction involves replicating irony in real life:

The fiction writer, playing God with his characters and their stories, can create tricks of plotting, ironic “turns of event,” that resemble the “tricks of Fate” that we speak of as being ironic in everyday life.

As Hills also notes, irony is an aspect of the author’s tone. It’s the author’s feeling about the events of a story, and the orchestration of those events, that creates an ironic effect. Again, irony in real life is more than coincidence, which means irony in fiction is a deliberate act on the part of an author. (And readers know that.)

We’ve all been the recipient of self-inflicted irony. If you proudly tout your healthy lifestyle, then get caught with a mouthful of McMeat dripping off your chin, you’re probably going to feel some embarrassment. This potential for added meaning (all you were doing was eating a hamburger) and the tone of the impact (comic or tragic) is not simply great fodder for fiction, it offers opportunities to introduce and exploit suspense in all its guises. Again: audiences are fairly sophisticated, and if you prepare for irony in your stories they’ll probably see it coming and enjoy it all the more.

A mocking attitude is what’s common to all forms of irony, whether it be the “tragic” or “dramatic” irony of fate or the facetious ironic tone of satire.

If you’re thinking about writing an ironic character or story I recommend that you spend a little time with this chapter. Hills lays out all the permutations nicely, and explains how they work both as a matter of craft and in relation to the audience’s own perspective.

Irony isn’t complicated, really, but as an aspect of tone it requires careful attention to detail. Convincing your readers that something is ironic means controlling point of view for that effect — both in terms of the characters involved and your own authorial presence. Like everything else in storytelling, the last thing you want to end up doing is confusing your audience, and the best way to prevent that is to know your craft.

Next up: Setting.

— Mark Barrett

WIG&TSSIP: Monologues

The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.

The full title of this section is Monologues, and the Pathological First Person. If you’re like me you’d be hard pressed to cite an example of a fictional monologue, let alone one you found compelling as literature or art. This section explains why.

Stories told in the monologue form would seem to be exceptions to our “rule” that the point-of-view character is the character moved by action or will become so. The monologist, after all, is presumed to be the same after he ends his harangue as he was before he began it.

For Hills the relevant literary question is not whether something can be done, but whether it can be done well. His standard is, in the end, qualitative, not dogmatic. If breaking a rule increases the power of your fiction then by all means break it. As Hills notes, however, the inherent problem with monologues is that they decrease power by promoting uncertainty:

Who is it exactly that is talking? And then, is the reader being addressed directly? Or is a captive “visitor” there, in the barber chair or whatever, just somehow listening?

Hills piles on, but you get the point. It’s the point I made in an earlier post in this series, when I said, “Point of view is inherent in storytelling.” If you don’t provide a point of view, or you keep the point of view a secret, your readers, consciously or subconsciously, are going to provide an answer themselves.  Read more ]

WIG&TSSIP: The Focusing Power of POV

The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.

Given the relationship between point of view and movement of character that Hills pointed out in the previous section, it may seem as if a rule has been laid down. In a sense I guess that’s true, but I think it’s less a rule of fiction than a fact. In any case, just because there’s an inviolate relationship between point of view and character movement, that doesn’t mean you have to slave your stories to that relationship from the get-go. As Hills notes:

But then, in good stories by good writers, one often sees a point-of-view method that started off “wrong” — or at least indirectly — being worked around to focus on the real consequences of the action.

Hills gives excellent examples from Hemingway’s The Killers, and A Clean, Well-Lighted Place, and D.H. Lawrence’s The Horse Dealer’s Daughter. If you want to see the focusing power of point of view first hand, it’s worth reading those stories and comparing his notes with your own experience as a reader.

Whether those particular authors specifically thought about exploiting the focusing power of point of view or not, the effect is still there because the point of view character is necessarily the vessel for movement that defines any story. You can fight it or go with it, but you can’t change that fact:

And as far as the writer is concerned, we’ve seen that even when an author has misconceived his story, and attempted to tell it from the point of view on an unmoved character, he often finds that things begin to change on him. Despite the author’s intentions, the point-of-view character will tend to occupy the center of his stage…

As a practical matter, the focusing power of point of view in fiction seems to be an artifact of fiction’s point-of-view flexibility. In first-person fiction, where the point of view is fixed to and never shifts from the narrator, the moved character and the point of view character are necessarily the same. It’s only when the multiplicity of third-person points of view come into play that the moved character and the point of view character have the potential to be confused by the author — particularly if there is a central character (Gatsby, say) who occupies neither role.

What’s at stake in all this is not simply the coherence of your work, but its force and effectiveness. If you want to write an epic third-person story that “bounces” between characters all over the globe you can do so with full confidence that story and reader will converge at the end on the point-of-view character. You can even write a “scenic” epic that avoids a point-of-view character or narrator all together, but in choosing to do so you leave storytelling power and effectiveness on the table. If storytelling is about movement of character, and movement of character is tied to point of view, and if the reader is going to impute point of view even if you try to withhold it, then you’re probably better off — particularly as a beginning writer — not fighting those connections.

Craft is not a constraint. As a writer you can always do what you want to do, but part of doing what you want to do is knowing the effect of the choices you make. In the same way that learning to draw cubes and spheres and perspective lines augments an artist’s work, even if that artist chooses to focus on pure abstraction, mastering storytelling craft gives you more ability to flex your writing muscles.

Next up: Monologues, and the Pathological First Person.

— Mark Barrett

Post Mortem: Two Publishing Start-Ups

Guy Gonzalez had a post up recently about the Domino Project, which Seth Godin is closing down. Included in the post was a link to a talk by Richard Nash, ruminating about what did and didn’t work at Red Lemonade, Nash’s web startup.

I generally agree with Guy’s take about both projects. Before I throw in my two cents, however, I want to state without reservation that both men deserve credit for putting their time and money where their mouths were. In a world of wall-to-wall pundits and doomsaying snipers with no skin in the game, we need all the people we can get who are willing to step in the arena and risk being humbled. It’s the only way progress will be made. Having said that, I have my own thoughts on what the end of these initiatives means. (Previous posts mentioning Seth Godin here, Richard Nash here.)

Both Godin and Nash garnered a great deal of interest a year ago as a cresting wave of change and doubt swept through the traditional publishing industry. Capitalizing on their celebrity and showmanship, both men looked into the future, saw a way forward, and acted on it. Godin, by partnering with Amazon in a publishing venture; Nash by creating and launching Red Lemonade, the first of an anticipated series of sites under the Cursor brand. Each project, at root, envisioned a new way of publishing content outside the traditional publishing paradigm.

So what can authors learn from their efforts? Well, given that most writers will never publish the work of others, probably not much. Unless you’ve a mind to become a publisher — whatever that elastic term means to you these days — most of what Godin and Nash have been through is probably inessential, however interesting it might otherwise be. Still, I think it’s possible to see connections to authorship in these ventures — if not directly, then indirectly, as confirmation of other truths.  Read more ]