Writer’s Log, January 1: Point of View

Now that we are facing a new year, it seems like the perfect time to talk about point of view. Like any perspective, when we needlessly reduce it, it becomes that much harder to understand. I used to think there was something wrong with me when I found it so difficult to choose between first or third person (G-d forbid I should even begin to entertain second). After months of agonizing, I would eventually just pick one out of sheer exhaustion. It never felt like much of a victory. More like walking down the aisle of a rained-out wedding. And being forced to choose between Mr. Bill and Mr. Bean for a life partner.

But after years of watching other writers trying to navigate the rusty-nailed seesaw that is making this choice, I started to develop a little perspective on perspective. And the first thing that dawned on me was that, given the variety of narrative voices that are out there, how can it be that we are meant to understand point of view as a matter of only two, or if we’re really ballsy, three choices? Why is it that after we’ve finally summoned up the tremendous courage it takes to capture our unique voices on paper, instead of taking a clearing breath and wandering off on the wild path into our imaginative landscape, we feel we must choose between Door #1 or Door #3?

As with most writing instruction in our culture, I believe the problem lies in a stalled – and frequently stale — conversation on the subject. An assumption that as long as writers know what point of view is, they should have no trouble putting it to good use. Because the truth is, that while it is indeed useful to choose whether your narrative voice will refer to itself in the first person or default to the third, these pronouns are really nothing more than blank canvasses to work from. And like any brush strokes we make, the point is not to get the perfect perspective on paper; it’s to capture the one that speaks to us.

What’s more, as all good readers know, no point of view is really the same as any other. Orson Wells’ third person is literally worlds away from Tolstoy’s. And Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert and Zusak’s Death might both represent ultimate darkness, but boy does some distinctive light get into those stories.  

But what if you get it wrong? Well, you can’t. Yes, it’s true that by making a choice about point of view, you must leave several, possibly excellent choices behind. But that’s EXACTLY what artists are supposed to do. We are not meant to capture an objective, indefensible voice. We are meant to seek one true voice, and know that it stands among millions of others.

The point is, writer’s make choices. And the most spectacular results of this lie not in the bigger picture – the perfect point of view or astonishing subject matter or gorgeously stylized prose – but in the thousands of careful, thoughtful choices we make along the way. Maybe this is true for our lives, too. But for now, I just hope it helps you fling wide whatever door stands before you and have faith in the extraordinary act that is putting one foot in front of the other.

Writer’s Log, December 1: Pandemic Planning

I don’t know about you, but if you’d asked me a year ago what I’d do if I were suddenly unable to leave the house for the better part of a year, I’m pretty sure I would have come up with a fantastic, fantastical description of all the writing I’d get done and all the quality time I’d have with my family. I’d probably also throw in a profound-but-catchy line or two about all the hidden gifts and opportunities embedded in the chance to simplify and go inward.

Well.

Things started out OK. My sisters and I agreed that Mother Nature was giving us a much-deserved time out. I reminded myself that my parents are essentially hermits anyway, so they’d probably be fine. I laid down the law around family time and exercise for the kids. I pulled out David Copperfield and tidied up the corner of my bedroom I use to write. I took walks, and stared out the window, and enjoyed ALL THE FOOD. But after about 12 hours of this behavior, something became abundantly clear to me. Yes, I was suddenly free of having to drive my three kids to kingdom come and back, and it was kind of glorious to have everyone home and healthy, and I did have more time to write, but THERE WAS A PANDEMIC GOING ON.

In my defense, I do love to daydream. And I am an incurable optimist. But I’m also a seasoned realist,  and I’ve been in the thick of creative work for the better part of two decades, which means that I really should have known better.

I should have known that creativity does not answer to open stretches of time or clean writing spaces; it’s not, in other words, usually a matter of scheduling or outside constructs. Instead — as I found out while writing huge swaths of my first novel in five-minute increments by my kids’ nightlights and on receipts in the car console — it answers to what’s going on within. When my kids were young and flourishing and I was both desperate to express myself and saturated with experience, the writing came freely. It follows, then, that I experienced just a bit of a hitch in my step while watching the world take a nosedive into a catastrophic outbreak.

And so I’ve immersed myself in a different kind of study. When I’m not feeling shattered, or wildly hopeful, or enormously discouraged, or navigating the curious sensation that I’m on an unending vigil – I don’t know exactly what I’m looking out for, and yet I can’t stop looking out for it – I check in. Sometimes I write. Sometimes I don’t. I remind myself that it’s a good sign of mental health that I’m not responding to a global panic at the disco with equanimity and the sangfroid needed to dive in regularly to one’s work. I remember that rich experiences – especially those that turn us inside out and upside down – are the key to germinating worthwhile material. I remind myself that pandemic planning is an oxymoron. I try to just see what the day or week looks like, and visit with my creativity as best I can.

And while this might look like I’m spending most of my time puttering or plotzing, the only real block I experience now is when I try to sideswipe my reality with lofty goals and great expectations. Instead, as always, when I keep my nose to the ground and my antennae flickering toward whatever is available in the moment, my work continues to unfold. Some weeks this means I write regularly, some weeks I simply work out problems in the shower and at the stove. Either way, by staying in touch with what is, instead of what I hoped would be, some essential thing almost always takes route or blossoms. And by tending when I’d rather reap, pausing when I want to run ahead, writing five words instead of moaning over being unable to write 500, the work gets done. My creativity begins to trust that I’ll spend my energies working on whatever is there, instead of getting my knickers in a twist about what isn’t. And when I’m really on my game, I even remember that I want my writing to ebb and flow, like all flourishing, organic things.

Art: Katsushika Hokusai, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa

Writer’s Log, October 3rd: Kindness

Early last month, my seventeen-year-old son and I got into a heated argument in the waiting room of our dermatologist. The doctor was running late, and I was having a stressful day, and despite the mask on my face, he could see the rage simmering in my eyes. “You shouldn’t get angry, Mom,” he said, watching me like a soldier watches a minefield, “it’s not very nice.”

Poor kid. He had no idea that ‘nice’ has become a trigger word for me in recent years, that ‘nice’ has so little to do with what I want for both of us. But let me back up just a bit.

I’ve always been a passionate reader, but when I began to make my first, tentative steps toward writing a novel, I began to look at books in a different way. I’d been reading for almost thirty years at the time, but I’d rarely stopped to think about what it was that I loved most about the books and authors I returned to, time and time again. When I tried categorizing them as I’d been taught to as a scholar, I failed to isolate a common genre, time period, movement, subject matter, or storyline. It took me many moons to realize that, in seeking an external classification, I was missing the point. As it turns out, it was the heartbeat of these books that I was responding to, the way almost all of them tussled with kindness, in the deepest sense of the word.

This type of kindness is not about yielding to niceties, or doing favors, or otherwise compromising yourself in an effort to calm the waters. It’s not, in other words, about being nice. Things that are nice prioritize the agreeable, the amenable, the unspoken word. Kindness, on the other hand, is about showing others who we are, in the hopes that they will show us who they are. And kindness is what I hunger for, whether it be in books or in the dermatologist’s waiting room.

He was right to chastise me, not because I wasn’t being nice, because I could give a flying you know what about being nice. I do, however, want to be kind. Because kindness isn’t about compromising your own feelings, it’s about taking a deep breath at the end of a long day and asking yourself if a beloved doctor really needs to see daggers shooting out of your eyes because she kept you waiting. It’s about asking yourself if your anger really belongs in someone else’s chest, whether it be at the end of a long day or the end of a long couple of years. It’s about stretching our definitions of what kinship might be, to peek beyond the bruising materials that seem to get lodged between us, even if we have to stand on tiptoes in a stiff wind. It’s not about dropping our eyes and folding our hands in our laps. It’s about having the courage to look in someone else’s eyes, and opening your arms. It’s about expanding our capacity for paradox, for knowing that while we have an infinite capacity for difference on the individual level, we also all hold lifetime memberships to the collective whole. This, for me, is why literature is so vital, why story is so essential, why a conversation that involves more listening than speaking can save lives.

And yes, kindness is also about being soft when others are telling you to be hard. Giving even when you fear something irrecoverable might be taken from you. Giving because something irrecoverable might be taken from you. Like hate, or hardness. Isn’t it funny how the steeliest parts of us are the first to rust? How our softest words are the ones that bear repeating, the ones that carry, the ones that last?

Art: Sakai Hoitsu, Poppy from Primrose

Writer’s Log, September 1st: Unicorns on a Racetrack

It’s hard to be a parent in the 21st century without having to grapple with standardized assessments of your kids. There you are, puttering merrily along, enjoying and supporting your kid quirks and all, when out of nowhere a letter arrives in the mail reducing said kid to a series of rankings, percentiles, and scores. In five seconds flat, you’re projecting twenty years in the future, trembling with the kind of specific, long-reaching projections even biblical prophets wouldn’t dare to make.

It’s entirely possible that you’re harboring just a smidgen of PTSD over however you were also unwittingly pigeonholed at a young age. Thanks to a very literary household, I started reading when I was four, but I was placed in the lowest reading group in second grade because I was much more interested in staring out the window than answering questions about the cat on the mat. And it only went downhill from there.

Maybe, like me, you’ve found a silver lining when it comes to navigating these tests for your kids, learning how to advocate for what they are, rather than get tripped up by what they aren’t. But even if you have, I’d wager good money that you haven’t extended the same kind of protection and support to yourself. Yet how can we teach our children to stand up for themselves if we’re not doing the same for ourselves? How can we tell them to carve out a meaningful place in the world if we insist on keeping up with the laundry instead of staking out time to write, or answering every email within 24 hours instead of fiddling around on the piano, or seeking a promotion we’re not even sure we want instead of staring out the window?

When I was studying education in graduate school, I continued to feel like I was swimming upstream, struggling to find a toehold for a more fulsome concept of lifelong learning. With so much work to be done on the K-12 front, it’s understandable that many of my colleagues looked at me askance. But I still believe that the most beneficial learning environments are community based, that our children will only be willing to remain curious, open, and brave if the adults who are asking this of them are also working to remain curious, open, and brave. It can be so hard, though, particularly in a society that views education so narrowly.

Last year, my fifth grader was applying to an accelerated program for sixth grade, so we were navigating tests galore. When the admissions team emailed to ask what I made of his glacial processing speed relative to his other scores, I thought of my sweet, daydreaming, pokey son, and was immediately transported back to that window view that fascinated me when I was younger. “I suppose it’s a bit like putting a unicorn on a racetrack,” I wrote back. “Sure, he might run the race, but if you focus only on his speed, you’ll miss all the magic.”

Similarly, I often get unpublished clients or students bemoaning how little they’ve accomplished, or pawing at unyielding ground and twisting their tightly braided forelocks when asked if they think of themselves as writers. But what is a writer if not, simply, someone who writes with intention, care, and hope? Why must we continue to measure even artistic success by the stalest of parameters?

So I ask you: What can you do to release yourself from false constraints? How can you honor your truest self, no matter how she might be measured? How can you start your own, small rebellion from within?

Art: James Emmerson, Sunlight through Stained Glass

Writer’s Log, August 1st: Listening

Earlier this week, I unwittingly managed to make my normally even-keeled, happy-go-lucky teen daughter dissolve into a weepy, angry ball of misery. It was a really nice addition to the already crowded, shadowy side of my parenting hall of fame. I’d like to say it was because I needed to teach her a tough lesson, and that I was gritting my teeth and standing up to a significant parenting challenge despite the emotional shrapnel ricocheting around us. But that’s only what I thought I was doing. Toward the end of the conversation, I realized I just hadn’t been listening.

Sometimes, life teaches us so much more about our writing than the writing can. When we write, it can be so tempting to think only of what we have to say, to focus on what others make of our words, to mistake the output as more critical than the input. But how can we learn to say anything worthwhile if we’re only listening to ourselves?

This failure to listen to my daughter was particularly notable not just because she is so notoriously hard to rattle, but because the question of whether to listen or speak up was the actual subject of our argument. That’s right. I failed to listen during an argument that was, essentially, about listening.

Like many young women, my daughter has developed a very appealing outward persona. She has a tendency to lead with empathy and warmth, to be helpful before anyone even realizes help is needed, to soothe the lost sheep around her as she organizes them into tidy lines. But although she receives a thousand compliments for this behavior — or because she does — I’m terrified that she will fall into the same trap so many women have before her, believing that her worth lies in how agreeable her behavior is.

And my concern is amplified by the fact that the only complaint I ever hear from her teachers is that she doesn’t speak up enough in class, which makes me afraid that she is hiding her true opinions for fear of making waves. What’s more, I find her classroom silence particularly baffling because when she’s home, she loves nothing more than a good verbal sparring match with one of her brothers, frequently makes her ideas and directions known, and is even occasionally snappish, moody, and temperamental. I just love it. Because from where I stand, the spicier parts of her personality are those that will be most beneficial to her once she goes out into the world, the ones that will keep others from using her kindness to walk all over her.

Or so I thought.

It took me a reaallllly long time to hear this, but what she was trying to tell me was that she doesn’t speak up in class because it doesn’t benefit her. She learns by listening and observing, and trying to go against her nature to speak up just because someone else wants her to creates exactly the kind of external pressure to be someone she isn’t that I so want her to avoid.

And when I say it took me a really long time to hear this, I mean a good 45 minutes of back and forth that made her feel, by turns, misunderstood, miserable, and furious.

It’s hard to resist the appeal of strong defenses for both our children and ourselves. My entire life, I’ve also been told that I am too nice, or too gentle, or too soft spoken. I’ve worked very hard at being comfortable taking charge and speaking up, and I do both quite effectively. But the only time I ever need to draw on this learned behavior is when I’m on the verge of losing ground in a crowded room or a crowded profession. And when it comes to adequately expressing my power, intellect, or perspective, being disingenuously outspoken only works against me. In fact, when I’m at my very best, I’m doing what my daughter does, which is listening very carefully to the world. Not because I am afraid to speak up, but because I learn so much more when my head isn’t dominated by the sound of my own voice. This, incidentally, is also the place where my best and most genuine writing emerges.  

And at this moment of heightened sensitivity around the insidious effects of loud, privileged, narrow-minded voices who have a tendency to only get louder and more self-righteous when the chips are down, it might not be a bad time to revisit the power of listening. Listening to ourselves, to our children, to those voices we’ve never really heard before and those we don’t want to hear. Listening not because it protects us, but because it opens us up. Listening because, as writers, what we take in is impossible to separate from what emerges on the page, and because having the courage to soften, learn, and challenge our favorite viewpoints is the only way we can ever hope to grow.

Art: Erin Clark, Quiet Forest