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.

4 Replies to “Writer’s Log, January 1: Point of View”

  1. Well, it certainly feels like you’re talking directly to me. 😉 I really do love this. “See” you next Sunday.

  2. For my latest story, I was nailed a few times for minor head hopping or how publishing editors didn’t get the “feel” for any one of my characters. Well, I took their criticism to task and cleaned up my act. But what’s more, I am have just committed self-pubbing my book through Amazon. My writing is better now that the point if view issue was solved, but I gained the satisfaction of taking everyone’s suggestions and turning my nose at them to go out on my own.

    1. Love this, Michael! My learning curve has looked very similar. So glad you’re moving on with your own voice intact!

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