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15 November 2010 @ 04:40 am
Third Person Blues  
I'm finally getting a new computer this week, after much dithering. My current one, which for some time had been oozing along at the speed of the proverbial molasses in January, has recently begun acting as if it has ingested a large container of Trader Joe's creamed honey directly through its keyboard. I can't write on a machine that takes an hour or so to get moving in the morning (never mind that I take two—who's the boss here!) and I've decided that I need something more comfortable than the laptops I've been hunched over, with the attendant posture issues and neck and shoulder pain, ever since I discovered that a computer made it possible for me to write fiction and enjoy doing it. I will be getting an all-in-one, a desktop computer whose guts are in its flat screen, with a wireless keyboard and mouse, and no tower.

Now I'm wondering if the new sense of ease and comfort will improve my writing, be irrelevant, or somehow make it worse. At my day job (using an old-fashioned tower desktop with a full-size keyboard on a beneath-the-desk pull-out tray and a mouse with a scroll wheel) I've noticed that when it's a little too cold I do my best work, focused and alert as I can't be when the temperature is warm enough for me to relax. Perhaps there's a similar dynamic for creative writing. But I don't care; I'm willing to take a chance on artistry without suffering. I'll still have to go to the job and watch every penny, still be living in a top-floor apartment under an uninsulated and leaky tar-paper roof during New York's humid, tropical summers and stormy winters. I won't exactly be lolling my days away in sybaritic luxury. I just won't be suffering additional torment from the physical process of writing (I hope).

I've been thinking a lot about Michael Cunningham's (The Hours) New York Times op-ed piece of October 2, “Found in Translation,” in which he explains why reading is an active pleasure, as opposed to the passive viewing of TV and movies:

“One of the more remarkable aspects of writing ... is that no two readers ever read the same book. We will all feel differently about a movie or a play or a painting or a song, but we have all undeniably seen or heard the same movie, play, painting or song. They are physical entities.... Writing, however … requires a different level of participation. Words on paper are abstractions, and everyone who reads words on paper brings to them a different set of associations and images. I have vivid mental pictures of Don Quixote, Anna Karenina and Huckleberry Finn, but I feel confident they are not identical to the images carried in the mind of anyone else.”


We've all experienced this, and it can be funny and also frustrating. I've been amazed, at meetings of a Jane Austen book group I attend, to hear otherwise intelligent people claim that Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley aren't close at all, much less good friends, or that Mr. Collins (the loathsome clergyman that “plain” and poor Charlotte Lucas marries) isn't really so bad and can be “improved” by his wife. What book did they read? Surely not Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice!

For a writer, the experience of being “mistranslated” by readers is much worse than simply having a difference of opinion over another writer's work. Apart from people with clear agendas to do with the bias against (male) bisexuality in the LGBT “community,” most of the “misunderstanding” of my work stems, I now realize, from the fact that I've been writing in the third person omniscient (TPO), otherwise known as “head hopping.” That is, I write from within the various characters' heads, reporting their point of view in the third person. For the unwary or unsophisticated reader, it can seem as if what's going on inside Phyllida's mind after she's fought off an attempted rape, or what George Wickham feels when Lydia reacts with unabashed excitement at seeing him sexually dominated by Mr. Darcy, are my own unfiltered opinions. These readers think I genuinely believe that unconsummated rape is “no big deal” because Phyllida, distraught and frightened, tells herself so as a coping mechanism (surely a familiar one to most of us), or that I share the exhausted and humiliated Wickham's contempt for the spirited, sexually aggressive young girl he's now forced to marry because he was too lazy to reject her earlier advances.

When Phyllida first came out from HarperCollins, over two-and-a-half years ago, a writer named Moriah Jovan reviewed it on her blog: http://moriahjovan.com/mojo/?p=43
we corresponded, and had, to me at least, an informative discussion about the various voices and PoVs a writer can choose. TPO is strongly discouraged in writing classes these days, and Ms. Jovan and I, after some back-and-forth, decided that it's more of a fashion statement than a reasoned judgment on good writing. Any style or voice can produce a great read or a clunker, depending on the skill of the author. Most of the classics of literature we read as children and young adults were written in TPO.

It's only now, when I've seen some other “mistranslation” of my writing, from a reader I can't dismiss as unsophisticated (she's written her master's thesis on my work) that I truly understood how TPO can confuse readers. (Since the author is planning to revise and expand the paper, with the goal of publication, I feel it's better not to identify her by name or institution at this stage).

So...where am I going with this? All I know for sure is that I'm contemplating something different for novel number three. No, I won't be abandoning comedy to write serious works of moral uplift, any more than I'll be giving up bacon for tofu. And anything I write will have to include an m/m/f “bisexual” love story, or why bother? I yam what I yam, after all. But it might be fun to try a different PoV, a little less head-hopping, perhaps some first person. Like my idol, Jane Austen, I don't intend to write the same novel every time.
Gaedhal: Robert&JudeSweetgaedhal on November 16th, 2010 02:28 am (UTC)
I'm always trying to encourage my students to try
different POV's -- but they are so hesitant! They
feel "comfortable" with first person because it
feels "natural" -- but I remind them that nothing
about writing is natural -- it's all craft and sweat
and work. I have an exercise where they have to write
the same scene either from two different POV's or
as seen by two different characters. It's hard for
them, but it's invaluable.

ann_amalieann_amalie on November 22nd, 2010 12:25 am (UTC)
I wrote first person for years when I started. It did seem "natural," especially as I was writing sword-and-sorcery/fantasy stories from the PoV of a woman roughly my age married to a sexy, slightly bisexual swordsman. The problem is, those early stories sucked. But it was probably due more to my inexperience than to the PoV.
I "graduated" to third person when I started writing a story that took place after my character's death. Couldn't do first person anymore, as I don't believe in life after death, etc. ;)
But by then I was moving on to the idea of writing something I could hope to publish, that wasn't fanfic--and that ultimately led to Phyllida. That third person omniscient felt so natural to me I wasn't even aware that I was choosing it. The book just seemed to have to be written that way.

Edited at 2010-11-22 01:10 am (UTC)