Week thirty-four: Find your perspective

It is week thirty-four of 2019. How’s the writing going? I came across a mindfulness exercise – on David Cain’s wonderful blog Raptitude – that seems custom-built for writers. Cain calls it “dying on purpose,” and it involves “looking at the scene in front of you as though it’s happening without you.” Try to hover above it and to remove your own reactions and judgments and just observe.

From a mindfulness perspective, this exercise is helpful because it can quiet your brain, muting anxiety and other negative reactions. As Cain puts it, “it’s just stuff happening, not stuff happening to you.” For a writer, this exercise can give you practice with perspective, trying on an omniscient narrator gaze that sees everything and feels nothing. You could also take the exercise one step further after getting this cleansing distance by zooming back in to the perspective of other ‘characters’ in the scene. What does the bored-looking barista wish he were doing? What’s on the mind of the woman frowning at her phone? What are the friends in the corner laughing about? Where is the man ordering the two iced horchata lattes going when he leaves? Each of these participants in the scene would tell a different story about it, colored by their perspective of what is happening to them.

This is precisely the topic Christopher Castellani delves into in his thought-provoking book, The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story. As Castellani points out, “There is no more important decision the writer makes than who tells the story, because, whoever that narrator is, he will compel us to tell it his way, with his frames of reference, his agenda and lexicon and baggage, within his particular wedge of time. Every narrator becomes the story, and the story becomes him.” Familiar stories retold from the perspective of a character who is on the margin in the original are the most dramatic examples of this principle: the “madwoman in the attic” from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre gaining control of the narrative in Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea; the Wicked Witch of the West retelling the story of The Wizard of Oz in Wicked; JM Coetzee dropping another character onto the island with Robinson Crusoe and Friday in Foe.

However, most choices about perspective are more nuanced and therefore more difficult to understand and control. Castellani does have some wisdom to offer about the consequences of big decisions like the choice between a first-person and a third-person narrator: “A character who narrates in first person exposes herself to a greater degree than she would in third person. The relative distance of third person gives her cover; and, of course, as we have seen, even within third person the narrator can modulate that distance. With the intimacy of first person comes a vulnerability for which there is little or no cover, and with that vulnerability comes both a more exciting opportunity to win the reader’s engagement and a higher risk of rejection.”

But he’s more interested in tracking subtle narrative levers, such as distance. His method is very like that of Francine Prose, whose book Reading Like a Writer I discussed last week: he takes a close look at how specific books work. “If there are such things as answers or secrets when it comes to how to tell good stories, they have already been told to us by the narrators of the novels and stories that have charged and changed us. Have we been paying attention?” Castellani will show you how to pay attention, what to look for, as you follow him through works by EM Forster, Lorrie Moore, William Faulkner, and others. As with Prose’s techniques, you can bring these reading strategies to works that resonate with you or that you particularly want to learn from.

Castellani has thoughtful things to say about current literary trends. He notes, for example, that “the ‘unreliable narrator’ label is being applied not only to the obviously deluded first-person speaker, but also to the third-person narrator who exhibits even a smidgen of a personality. An attitude, if you will. . . . Implicit in this is the recognition, however subconscious, that all stories are constructed, and that the person telling the story always brings to it his biases and sensibility . . . . That what makes every narrator essentially unreliable is the simple fact of his humanity.”

This same distrust of the notion of absolute truth has led novelists to reject the traditional nineteenth-century narrator, who was “more comfortable with the burden of omniscience,” Castellani argues. “Instead, our charge has been to depict individual experience in its fullest and most vivid detail, keeping in the back of our minds that that experience is itself inherently limited.” Castellani notes that the use of multiple third-person narrators is a kind of omniscience, but one in which “the friction among the characters produces much of the meaning, which must be inferred or interpreted by the reader rather than provided by the omniscient narrator.” However, just because the narrative authority is broken up into bright prismatic shards, doesn’t mean it’s not there: “There may not be a chummy or imperious or oracular or cynical voice that serves as a stand-in for the author, but the text asserts its authority nonetheless” through a multitude of decisions about how long characters get to hold the narrative mic, which scenes they get to tell us, and how close we are to them.

In discussing his own relationship with perspective – both in the context of a novel he is trying to write and of a memory he is trying to understand – Castellani makes the profound point that our struggles with perspective boil down to “its refusal to keep still.” We know from reflecting on our own lives that many things – the passage of time, changing goals and dreams, new knowledge – can influence the way we view the events that have shaped us. If meaning can always be changing in this way, how do we ever know that it is true? As a writer, “When will I know if I have the ‘right’ perspective to make the best possible story from that raw material? And, if I do find the ‘right’ perspective, will it lead me reliably to an effective narrative strategy?” The answer is, as you suspected, that you will never know. The only thing to do is to try. Write your way through and out.

As Castellani puts it: “The writer’s goal is not to derive comfort from the trek across the sea and up the mountain, but to document that view with honesty and integrity once she gets there. In other words, to use the tools of craft to tell the story with as much urgency and insight and style and depth as she can. In that telling is, of course, where the art of perspective lies.”

Here’s to finding your perspective, y’all,

Next week’s book: David Lynch, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity

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