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When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time. –Maya Angelou
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Recently a student of mine asked about POV. Specifically, she was wondering about "close third person." "I wasn't immediately familiar with this level of specificity," she wrote. "I think I know the basics: first person, third person, etc. But I was curious if you (or anyone else) has a resource they could recommend that covers this?"
I thought I'd share my response to her here, as I think it might be useful to other writers:
So! As you say, there are three main narrative voices in which a story can be written: first person, second person, and third person. Everyone's probably familiar with these terms from school. First person is "I" ("I was a servant in my stepmother's house"), second person is "you" ("You were a servant in your stepmother's house"), and third person is "he/she/it" ("She was a servant in her stepmother's house"). Those are the basics, indeed.
There's another kind of narrative technique I sometimes talk about, and that's narrative distance. It refers to a kind of psychic distance. It can be affected by things like the point in time from which the story is being told. If the "I" narrator is telling a story in first person present tense, there will probably be almost no narrative distance. ("I sweep the cinders from the fireplace. I weep.") If the "I" narrator is telling a story in the past tense, there is more narrative distance ("Now that I am queen, it all seems like centuries ago, that every morning I'd get down on my hands and knees and sweep the cinders from the fireplace"). Same goes for third person.
In third person, narrative distance can be affected by how close or distant the point of view is. You can think of close third (also called limited third) as a zoomed-in camera angle, and distant third (also called third person omniscient) as a zoomed-out, distant perspective. In close or limited third, the rules for point of view are very strict: you cannot move outside of the perspective of your protagonist (hence the limited). When you're writing in close third, a good rule of thumb is to pretend like you're writing in first person, but replacing all the first person pronouns with third person pronouns. ("She could hear her stepsisters laughing in the other room, but she could not make out what they were saying.") In distant third person you have a little more flexibility. ("She could hear her stepsisters laughing in the other room, but could not make out what they were saying—which was fortunate, because Drizella was mocking her fiercely, saying, 'She looks as ragged as the mop she drags around with her!'") In that second example, you know you're in distant third because if you were in close third (just as if you were in first), if Cinderella couldn't hear what her stepsisters were saying, you wouldn't be able to put it in the story.
Long story short: In close/limited third, as in first (and second, which also functions essentially the same way first person does), you're functioning within the limitations of the self. If the protagonist can't see, hear, smell, touch, taste, remember, or know about a thing, that thing can't be in the story. In distant/omniscient third, those limitations are lifted. You have the freedom of an omniscient voice to describe and refer to things the protagonist has no relationship to.
There's a caveat for omniscient third, however. You have to be fair to all your characters, and treat them all with a healthy amount of narrative distance. If you spend a bunch of time up close and personal in one character's experience, your reader will be disoriented if you zoom way out and tell us what's going on somewhere else entirely. ("Her stepsisters' words cut her like knives. She felt as if they'd stabbed her very heart. How could they talk about her that way, after all she'd done to please them? Miles away, on the other side of the woods, the prince cried to his manservant: 'How will I ever find a wife?'" Weirdly disorienting, right? That's because it starts in close third, POV Cinderella, but ends in a place outside the limitations of her perspective.)
Omniscient third is actually pretty rare in literary fiction these days. Two recent examples are Exit West by Mohsin Hamid and Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. Those are actually the only two I've found. I think a lot of scifi and fantasy writers use omniscient third. The Bible is written in omniscient third, as are most myths. Tolstoy used it, and so did many other great 19th century novelists. Today, though, most literary fiction is written in close third, if it's written in third person at all. First person has become increasingly common over the last couple of centuries, and it's the prevailing narrative voice in which most mainstream pop fiction is written today.
I don’t wanna.
What do you want to do instead?
Go back to sleep? Check emails? Have a snack? Watch TV?
I could apply to jobs. That’s productive.
What kind of jobs?
I don’t know.
What do you like doing?
Teaching creative writing.
Then be a goddamn creative writer, and do your creative writing.
Is it too late to become a lawyer or something?
But I can’t write. Nobody’s telling me how.
They’re not going to. You have to figure it out for yourself.
But I can’t figure it out.
Then the book won’t get written.
This book is going to suck.
I don’t want it to suck.
You have a choice. You can try writing it, knowing that it might suck, or you can walk away now.
What if I walk away?
You went to school for writing. You went into debt for writing. You told people you were a writer. You wrote stories and got them published. What would people think?
They’d think I was a failure.
Wrong! Nobody cares. You could spend the rest of your life sleeping or snacking or watching television, or even becoming a not very good lawyer, and no one would care. The real question is: What would you think of yourself if you walked away now?
I’d think I was a failure.
So what’s your other option?
I can try writing it, knowing that it might suck.
Right. So buck up, muster a little dignity, and try to finish this fucking thing.
The novel received a starred review in Booklist today! Here it is:
Self-Portrait with Boy | Lyon, Rachel (Author) | Feb 2018. 384 p. Scribner, hardcover, $26.
Lu Rile is a struggling photographer working a series of minimum-wage jobs to pay for film and the rent for loft in a converted warehouse in early 1990s New York City. As an artistic exercise, she challenges herself to create a self-portrait a day. Self-Portrait #400, taken in front of her window, accidentally includes a child falling to his death from the building’s roof. Lu is horrified by the photo but also immediately recognizes that it is the best work she has ever made. Intending to show it to the boy’s parents and seek their permission to share the image, she instead finds herself under the weight of greif. Through Kate, Lu secures an opportunity to exhibit the photo and launch her career, but doing so will mean destroying their friendship. In her gripping first novel, Lyon sympathetically portrays Lu’s struggle to make this impossible decision and to deal with its repercussions.
This Christmas Eve my short story Tripping Sunny Chaudhry was republished in the very awesome Short Story Advent Calendar. It was really exciting to be part of this project. The editor of the calendar, Michael Kingston, kindly interviewed me about the story and my process. And I was amazed to look at Twitter that night and find that none other than amazing comedian Patton Oswalt (!!!) tweeted about the piece:
"Everyone's shitty. Everyone's hurting." If I ever publish a collection of short stories, I want Patton Oswalt to do the blurb on the front.
Vol. 1 Brooklyn included Self Portrait with Boy among their roundup of novels to read in 2018! They write: "We’re always up for novels dealing with artists and the ethical quandaries in which they find themselves, and Rachel Lyon’s debut falls squarely into that category. Throw in a detailed portrait of 1990s New York, and you have our full attention."
I woke up this morning to find that me and my book appear in a lovely little feature in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, or PAW. A few of my cohort acquaintances have been featured in PAW over the years, for instance my good friend the comedienne Nikki Muller, and the remarkable playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins. As a second-generation college graduate who had a difficult time in college, I feel a particular kind of emotion appearing alongside them in these pages.
What is such an emotion called? It's similar to how I felt sixteen years ago (!) when I was informed of my acceptance into that elite school in the first place. It's more complicated than gratification, prouder than humility, sadder somehow than pride. Perhaps there is a German word for it: the feeling of having been welcomed into a club where you never thought you'd be a member.
Switching perspectives in the close-third person—"She liked his voice" followed by "He didn't tell her…" a paragraph later—is generally thought of as a kind of crime in creative writing classes, and indeed many beginning students do it unwittingly. But Min Jin Lee does it so frequently—and deliberately, and gracefully—throughout this beautiful book that it becomes a kind of style.Read More
A little over a year and a half ago, my friend Rachel and I did an interview together for Luna Luna about our partnership in accountability. Rachel lives in France; I live in New York. We are partners in accountability. We write emails back and forth between languages and time zones, to cheer each other on and hold ourselves accountable on our respective creative projects.
It's amazing how effective it has been for me to have a partner in accountability, particularly one as inspiring as Rachel. Over the course of maybe 200 emails, from November 2015 to today, we have kept track of our goals and accomplishments, small ("I want to email this person I know," "I organized my files") and large ("I'm planning on traveling to a refugee camp for research," "I sold my first book!"); concrete ("I assembled all these pieces into one portfolio," "I got a rug for my writing room!") and abstract ("I want to get through this mucky feeling," "I want to purify my language"). We have read each other's lists and encouraged each other, even if all we have time to write is, "Awesome! Way to go!" I really believe it's due in part to our correspondence that I ever finished my first book.
Still there have been long lapses between letters. Months have gone by with no accountability emails at all. But then one or the other of us will feel the need to share what we are up to, and we will pick up the thread again, or start a new one. Today we find ourselves in the first few episodes of Accountability Institute, Season 3. I like thinking about our project as happening in seasons, like a television show. Our characters have developed. New narrative threads have unfolded.
The simple act of writing to a dear friend about what I want to do makes me feel as if I can do it, which means I am far likelier to. And yet sometimes I find it difficult to pick up that thread, or even to respond, although I want to. What is that about? Why would I avoid something that's so productive and enriching?
I guess it can be overwhelming to take stock of all the things I want to do. It can be embarrassing to realize that I've dropped the ball on this or that longterm goal. It can be frustrating to feel as if I haven't made any progress on something or other, frustrating to admit, "I'm stuck on this."
There are ways of getting around those issues. I have to remind myself of them frequently. Here's what works for me: Separate tasks into bullet points. Keep each bullet short. Sort groups of bullets into three categories: Past (Accomplished), Present (Ongoing), and Future (To Do). Account for and celebrate even the tiniest victory. A project needn't be finished to be counted; it is enough to say, "I'm working on it." It's okay to keep a goal in Future (To Do) indefinitely.
This post is copied from my weekly Writing/Thinking Prompts newsletter. Subscribe at tinyletter.com/rachellyon.
It's such a delight to learn a new word. It's also so difficult to keep up with blog posts. After learning the wonderful word "brachiate" last week, I decided to start keeping a vocabulary list, as I used to do in high school. Here are the new words I encountered over the course of the past week, along with, in some cases, the contexts in which I encountered them:
acanthus |əˈkanTHəs| noun 1 a herbaceous plant or shrub with bold flower spikes and spiny decorative leaves, native to Mediterranean regions.acanthus 2 acanthus 2 [via Latin from Greek akanthos, from akantha ‘thorn,’ from akē ‘sharp point.’]
From Counterman, Paul Violi: “The lettuce splayed, if you will, / In a Beaux Arts derivative of classical acanthus”
brachiate verb |ˈbrākēˌāt, ˈbrak-| [ no obj. ] (of certain apes) move by using the arms to swing from branch to branch: the gibbons brachiate energetically across their enclosure.
fleuron |ˈfləränˈflo͝orän| noun a flower-shaped ornament, used especially on buildings, coins, books, and pastry. • a small pastry puff used for garnishing.
From Counterman, Paul Violi: “…form a medallion with a dab / Of mayonnaise as a fleuron.”
kenosis |kəˈnōsəs| noun (in Christian theology) the renunciation of the divine nature, at least in part, by Christ in the Incarnation. DERIVATIVES kenotic |-ˈnätik| adjective ORIGIN late 19th cent.: from Greek kenōsis ‘an emptying,’ from kenoun ‘to empty,’ from kenos ‘empty,’ with biblical allusion (Phil. 2:7) to Greek heauton ekenōse, literally ‘emptied himself.’
From a student: “My most important argument with myself is about self-sacrifice. How much self to let go of. The great religions call for some, idealize complete self-sacrifice here and there. Kenosis.”
pelisse |pəˈlēs| noun historical a woman's cloak with armholes or sleeves, reaching to the ankles. • a fur-lined cloak, especially as part of a hussar's uniform. ORIGIN early 18th cent.: from French, from medieval Latin pellicia (vestis)‘(garment) of fur,’ from pellis ‘skin.’
poltroon |pälˈtro͞on| noun archaic or literary an utter coward. from French poltron, from Italian poltrone, perhaps from poltro ‘sluggard.’
From Jane Eyre: “What a miserable little poltroon had fear, engendered of unjust punishment, made of me in those days!”
sitzfleisch |ˈsitsˌflīSH| noun informal, chiefly US a person's buttocks. • power to endure or to persevere in an activity; staying power.
solander |səˈlandər| (also solander box) noun a protective box made in the form of a book, for holding such items as botanical specimens, maps, and color plates. ORIGIN late 18th cent.: named after Daniel C. Solander (1736–82), Swedish botanist.
"When an ambitious young photographer captures an unthinkable tragedy—and creates an accidental masterpiece in the process—she is forced to make a choice that will define her future.
"Thick with the atmospheric grime of early 1990s New York, Lyon's haunting debut hinges on a single instant: the moment when recent art school graduate Lu Rile, broke and ruthless, sets up her camera for a self-portrait—the 400th in her series—and captures, by chance, the image of a little boy falling from the sky. The boy is Max Schubert-Fine, the 9-year-old son of Lu's upstairs neighbors, and now he is dead, having slipped off the roof of their building, a crumbling Brooklyn warehouse not officially zoned for tenancy. The building's motley crew of residents—all artists; who else could live there?—come together in the aftermath of the tragedy, rallying around Max's beautiful mother, Kate, and offering Lu, until now a loner, something like community. In the weeks that follow, Kate and Lu form an intense and complicated friendship, united in loneliness, held together by a flicker of unspoken attraction. But Lu doesn't tell Kate about the photograph of her son falling, the photograph that could—that will—fundamentally change the course of Lu's career, offering her an escape from both poverty and obscurity, a name and a paycheck. (God knows Lu, whose father is ailing, needs the money.) From its first sentences, the novel is hurtling toward its inevitable and nauseating conclusion as Lu chooses between her friendship and her art, a choice that wasn't ever really a choice at all. More than a book about art, or morality, it is a book about time: Lyon captures the end of an era. Lu, after this, for better and worse, will never be the person she was before the photograph. And as the warehouses get developed and the rents rise, the city won't ever be the same, either.
"Fearless and sharp."