"And moreover, to succeed, the artist must possess the courageous soul...the soul that dares and defies."
-Kate Chopin, The Awakening

27 January 2011

"Write to please just one person...

...If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia." --Kurt Vonnegut

It's been a while since I've posted, and while a part of that (I am happy to say) is because I've been busy writing away, part of it is also because I've been procrastinating writing a post.  I started this blog to discipline myself into stepping back to critique and reflect on my work so I do not get wholly wrapped up in the process, but it turns out I'm just as much a procrastinating blog writer as I am a procrastinating everything else.  I doubt I'll ever be able to overcome procrastination, but I know I'll be a better writer for this blog, so I'm vowing to take a stab at posting regularly.

This week, I've made the switch from third to first person.  I've actually found the move extremely freeing, which is a relief, as I often felt I would run into brick walls in the third person.  I'm not saying that first person has solved all of my problems, but it has certainly freed up some creative instincts and, in many ways, allowed me more freedom in characterization, which, we've already established, is what I like most about writing.

I'm a pretty stubborn person when it comes to academics and competition, and, a few years ago, when I first saw my fellow undergraduates passing in first-person story after first-person story, I came to the conclusion that I needed to stand out by writing in third-person.  I passed in a third-person story (the first incarnation of Discipleship), but it was stuffy, wrapped up in itself.  I might have stood out, but I made a mistake in that I wasn't choosing point of view based on what would best serve the story, breaking a carnal rule of short-story writing.  I was trying to prove a point: that I could stand out among my peers.  I was ignoring Kurt Vonnegut's advice, and allowing my stories to catch cold.

Another problem was that I hadn't yet found my voice in writing.  I was attempting to emulate those I had read.  And while this is not a bad way to go about writing--I once had a professor challenge us to write in the style of another, and the affects were wonderful for the whole class--I was not emulating with the mentality that I was an apprentice to the greats, but a mentality of showmanship.  I wanted to show-off to the others in my class; I wanted to be the best.   Writing in third person kept me at a distance from my own narratives.  And my readers could see the disconnect. 

I didn't write a first-person short story until my second year in the writing program.  A professor challenged us to stray from our methods.  We passed in two full-length short stories over the course of the semester, and she wanted one to differ greatly from the other.  She challenged us to write in first-person if we were accustomed to third (or vice-versa), and work towards becoming more well-rounded writers.  While I disliked this professor's teaching methods in many ways (she seemed to have a cynicism towards writing and teaching that was not exactly encouraging), this piece of advice was one which truly helped me as a writer.  I wrote about a girl visiting her Aunt for the summer in the South.  Here's an excerpt from one of the first drafts:

That summer was the first time I had seen someone so drunk that they were transformed.  My cousin had warned me, pulling me aside from unpacking my new yellow suitcase that I was so proud of in order to tell me his mother sometimes got into trouble.  He was whispering, protecting the eight-year-old ears of my brother.  Dominick was known for reacting irrationally.  When he heard about a lice outbreak at the school two towns over, he wore my father’s high school football helmet day and night for a month.     
            “It won’t be an issue, I’m just letting you know in case you hear anything tonight,” Liam whispered.  
           His fair skin was red from the sun, burns he had recently received from the first days of summer not yet having healed into a tan. 
            I nodded, hoping to seem accommodating.  Aunt Hattie had taken Dominick and me into her house while my Dad was away on business, and if my Mama had been alive, she would have reminded me to be grateful.  It was not my place to complain that I had to share a bedroom with two sweaty boys, or that I had seen more bugs inside my Aunt’s house than at the Science Museum's Creepy Crawlers Exhibit Dominick had made us go to, or even, I told myself, that my Aunt was a drunk.

In the process of writing in first-person, I found that the narrative came easier; I was writing from my character, and thus could follow the age-old advice that every writer has ingrained into them at some point in their careers: "Show, don't tell."  It wasn't that writing in first person was easier, it was that it was easier for me to forget my audience.  I was no longer writing to be "literary" or to prove myself a great writer.  I was writing out of my character, and attempting to stay true to them.  I'm not sure if my writing truly improved in that first attempt at first-person, but I know I gained more confidence as a writer.  I was writing from within instead of without.  I was taking Vonnegut's advice, and, in that case, the one person I was writing for was my protagonist.

What I found most amazing was the ease with which I could bring my readers to an "epiphany" moment.  In third person, I worried that I needed to be non-explicit, to only hint at character breakthroughs because I thought that was how I would be artistic and artsy.  I was sacrificing my writing by trying to please others.  I was breaking another of Vonnegut's rules: "Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible.  To heck with suspense.  Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages" (Vonnegut quotes taken from "Creative Writing 101" in Bagombo Snuff box).   Instead of worrying how to present a character's breakthrough moment in the "correct" way, I allowed the character to speak for herself:

Liam looked up at me as if I had struck him.  I would later come to understand the weight of what I had suggested.  Betrayal was not a word I would match a feeling to until much later in my life, but Liam knew then the power that his potential betrayal could hold, and knew that it would destroy.  As I sat on the rickety cot, listening to the night air and watching the wide eyes of my cousin through the darkness, I came to appreciate my freedom.  Liam sat across the small room from me like the fireflies Dominick caught and put in a Mason Jar to use as a night light.  Only I was free to fly through the night sky, illuminating my own path.

While, in later drafts, I saw room for expansion within this paragraph and sections to edit, it was refreshing to speak this frankly without worrying that I was being too overt.  I was speaking in the voice of this protagonist, and could later take this quickly-written paragraph and expand it into something I was very proud of.

I realize now that, in being so adamant towards the third-person narrator of Discipleship, I  was once again trying to be a writer instead of simply writing.  The short story the novel stemmed from was always a third-person perspective, and I had never taken the time to evaluate the right point of view for it in its novel form.  I was only focused on what others would think of the narrative tone or voice, and it was easier to allow my characters to be buried in flowery, unspecific language.  First person puts the focus back onto the characters, and, in another positive, forced me to re-write whole sections of the novel. 

I still may not know whether the novel will end up in third or first person, but I know that, for now, I am allowing myself the freedom to listen to my characters.  I have found simple truths since I made the switch to first-person that have opened up whole other aspects of the novel.  I need to ride out this first-person wave, and see where it takes me.

Here's the new first paragraph of Discipleship.  A bit wordy at times, but I am excited for its potential once edited.

"It was the summer never to be forgotten or remembered; the summer my mother’s death by seagulls was completed, when Callie and I found and drowned our mermaids, and Thaddeus saw the end of the world coming with every nightmare.  But even now, it’s hard to remember the specifics.  Fragmentary memories sometimes appear, periodically bobbing above the surface of my consciousness like messages in a bottle.  Yet the corks of the bottles are moldy and cracked; they fall apart and allow trickles of water to soak into the hand-drawn maps, to make the ink run on the lover’s notes.  Only the hint of memories remains, structure without detail."

*all writing property of Rachel Coffin

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