Exploring point-of-view in your writing
“I have wanted you to see out of my eyes so many times.”
Perhaps, you write creative nonfiction — personal essay, memoir, literary journalism. You use fictional techniques to create true stories. But the first-person pronoun, at times, feels a bit narcissistic. And, you tire of the relentless drumbeat of ‘I.’ Sometimes you think about writing your true story as fiction. In that genre, you will be able to revel in the life of an invented character; put a little space between yourself and your self.
This is an essay about point-of-view pronouns. It is about the relationship between you and the reader.
Point-of-view and voice
Years ago, a potential mentor asked,“How do you plan to find your voice?” as though it might emerge from the underside of a sofa cushion. Wait a minute, I thought. I do not have only one voice. Each-and-every day it varies wildly, depending upon the audience — The unsolicited call from a man selling burial insurance. The adult daughter who calls to “vent.” The husband who informs me I have overdrawn the bank account, again.
Point-of-view (POV) is the position from which the reader will view the story. Change the point-of-view pronoun, and you will affect the distance between yourself and the reader. The process can affect your voice. Here is an example of my own POV writing prompt response; it features one narrator, one scene, and three pronouns.
A woman writes at a faux wood table in a Starbucks coffee shop. Her pen scratches urgently as if the words might elude her. She sips a hot beverage in the amber shadows created by pendant lights. Now and then, she lifts her head and stares into a whimsical mural. She seems to be searching for a word. The woman pauses, closes the book, looks at its cover and smiles.
I savor my tall extra hot caramel apple cider, tangy and sweet, doing a Natalie Goldberg in my overpriced Barnes & Noble journal. Natalie recommends using a fountain pen in a spiral notebook. My pen is a grocery store Paper Mate languishing in the depths of my purse. My journal is a hard-bound book with New Yorker magazine art. When words fail, I force myself to keep writing; I must make something of the gift from my daughter. Here is what she said when I unwrapped her gift—“Mom, now, you can write in the New Yorker.”
You have not admitted the shameful truth to your writer friends — you dislike journaling. It’s easier to journal in your mind while walking in the park than to scribble morning pages at home. This journal, like all the others, will sit on your bookshelf next to a dozen other half-filled composition books you will destroy before they become your legacy — a holy mess of insights, punctuated by cross-outs and to-do lists. But you don’t want to disappoint your daughter.
I used a variety of pronouns in this rambling experiment. The third-person pronoun shows the writer in her surroundings, but the reader lacks access to her thoughts. The first-person pronoun shares the narrator’s thoughts, but she is less able to show you how she looks within her surroundings. The second-person narrator confesses a secret. You sense this secret is something she might not have shared with the ‘I’ pronoun. And it feels a tiny bit intrusive.
Words follow context. Form follows function. If you change one thing about your conversation with the reader, he, she, or they will hear it differently. Consider the differences in tone between a letter of complaint, a love letter, a project proposal, an ode to springtime, nostalgia, or a memory of a traumatic event.
Here are some POV examples from literature.
First-person voice makes the narrator-protagonist accessible to the reader. Maya Angelou’s description in this excerpt from I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings clearly communicates the yearning of the child narrator.
“Just thinking about [my Easter dress] made me go around with angel’s dust sprinkled over my face for days. But Easter’s early morning sun had shown the dress to be a plain ugly cut-down from a white woman’s once-was-purple throwaway. . . The age-faded color made my skin look dirty like mud, and everyone in church was looking at my skinny legs . . . . Wouldn’t they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blond, would take the place of the kinky mass that Mommy wouldn’t let me straighten? My light-blue eyes were going to hypnotize them.”
First-person is also the realm of the unreliable narrator. There is no better example of this than in Hunter Thompson’s body of work, including this excerpt from, “The Scum Also Rises.”
“Indeed. The rats are deserting the ship at high speed. Even the dingbat senator from Colorado, Peter Dominick — the GOP claghorn who nominated Nixon for the Nobel Peace Prize less than two years ago — has called the president’s 11th hour admission of complicity in the Watergate cover-up ‘sorrowful news.’
We will not have Richard Nixon to kick around much longer — which is not especially “sorrowful news” to a lot of people, except that the purging of the cheap little bastard is going to have to take place here in Washington and will take up the rest of our summer.”
Thompson’s direct address and word choice create an in-your-face narrator. The editorial ‘we’ assumes the reader feels the same way, like it or not.
Second person POV
Second-person voice makes the reader a character in the story. Consequently, ‘you’ can make the reader feel uncomfortable, as in this example from David Simon’s immersion narrative about the Baltimore Police Department — Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.
“You are a citizen of a free nation, having lived your adult life in a land of guaranteed civil liberties, and you commit a crime of violence, whereupon you are jacked up, hauled down to a police station and deposited in a claustrophobic anteroom with three chairs, a table and no windows. There you sit for a half hour or so until a police detective — a man you have never met before, a man who can in no way be mistaken for a friend — enters the room with a thin stack of lined notepaper and a ballpoint pen.”
The second-person pronoun forces readers to inhabit a life that is not their own. In an interview with the Kenyon Review, author Mark Richard explains why he wrote the book House of Prayer No.2 in second person. Richard explains the second-person pronoun emerged naturally, because it conveyed the child character’s “sense of detachment from the world.”
The second-person voice also has the effect of distancing the narrator from self. This applies to scenes in which the narrator is absent, psychologically. When someone, for example, tries to describe the dissociative feeling of a traumatic event. Or in my case, when describing the memory of a grand mal seizure in my Medium Inspired Writer essay, “Flashing Lights Still Make Me Wince.”
“At first, you know who you are but can’t say where you are or why you’re there. You have an irrational desire to comfort bystanders but cannot find the words. You are aware of the tension in the room. In a few minutes, you will recall your location but not your memory. That will take a little longer. Mostly, you want the people standing there to leave you alone.”
Third-person distances the narrator from the reader, as in this example by Ernest Hemingway, who wrote literary journalism before the sub-genre existed. Here he refers to himself as “the reporter,” in an article he wrote for the Toronto Star—“Japanese Earthquake.”
“Astonished and confused, the visitor stood in the hall. He had a very strong feeling that if he stopped talking at any time, the door would slam. So he kept on talking. Finally the girl opened the door. “Well, I’ll let you in,” she said. “I’ll go upstairs and ask my mother.”
She went upstairs, quick and lithe, wearing a Japanese kimono. It ought to have some other name. Kimono has a messy, early morning sound . . . the colors were vivid and the stuff had body to it, and it was cut. It looked almost as though it might be worn with two swords to the belt.”
The third-person pronouns create a once-upon-a-time feeling, which is useful when a writers wants to describe a setting and describe physical appearance.
Mixing POV pronouns
In his personal essay, “The Brown Wasps,” Loren Eiseley reflects on how creatures return to a place even after it no longer exists. In this passage, and in others, he changes POV pronouns within one paragraph, from first to third-person and back again.
“Prematurely I am one of the brown wasps and I often sit with them in the great droning hive of the station, dreaming sometimes of a certain tree. It was planted sixty years ago by a boy with a bucket and a toy spade in a little Nebraska town. That boy was myself. It was a cottonwood sapling and the boy remembered it because of some words spoken by his father and because everyone died or moved away who was supposed to wait and grow old under its shade. The boy was passed from hand to hand, but the tree for some intangible reason had taken root in his mind. It was under its branches that he sheltered; it was from this tree that his memories, which are my memories, led away into the world.”
In the best-selling 2001 segmented memoir, Safekeeping, Abigail Thomas alternates between first and third-person points-of-view. She explains her choice in an interview with the American Literary Review —
“The option of first and third persons wasn’t a conscious choice…to write certain things in first person made me sound either saint-like or a victim. I also wanted to see myself from time to time through what I imagined my children’s eyes had [seen] . . . . The third person was also necessary when I had no connection anymore to the girl I’d been . . . Mostly it just felt right.”
There are other POV choices as well — the third-person plural corporate character that uses the plural first person to represent a community, a town, the folks on a front porch. There is the third-person narration present in meticulously researched book length nonfiction narratives, in which the narrator is a minor character or an omniscient observer.
Writers in fiction and creative nonfiction choose points-of-view with readers in mind. Do you want your audience to feel as if you are talking directly to them? Do you want the reader see you clearly, but from a distance? Do you want your audience to be immersed in your experience, as both observer and participant?
No matter the viewpoint choice, the author’s attitude toward the theme and characters is present in the work, reflected, as well, in word choice, characterization, actions and dialogue. So much technique. So little time.
Try this at home: A writing prompt
As my mother used to say, “Try this on, just for fun!” To practice point of view, write a single scene in first, second and third points-of-view.
If you want to get out-of-yourself, choose a nursery rhyme — for example, Little Miss Muffet sitting on a tuffet. Write Ms. Muffet’s character from her point-of-view, as a third person observer, or in the second-person POV, making your reader a character in the nursery rhyme. And remember to have fun!
Kimberly Crum enjoyed a social work career before getting an MFA in creative nonfiction. She taught composition and literature to Spalding University undergraduates and academic writing to MSW candidates, for ten years. Since 2012, Kim has been the sole proprietor of Shape & Flow Writing Instruction, where she leads memoir and personal essay workshops for aspiring writers who want to tell true stories for posterity or publication.
Kim is working the full draft of a segmented memoir titled, Slouching Toward Self-Actualization and is co-editor of a multi-genre literary anthology The Boom Project: Voices of a Generation (Butler Books 2019).
Kim is honored to be the current director of Women Who Write.