Thursday, December 07, 2017

Who's Awed by Virginia Woolf?

I read Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse twice this fall, once alone and once with a class of high-achieving Advanced Placement students. I was wowed the first time I read the book, but taking a second look –– reading it to teach it –– forces one to take a closer glance under the hood, so to speak. This is particularly good for a writer –– the chance to study a master at her craft.

Now I’m a huge Virginia Woolf fan. Among the things she does fascinatingly well in the book is her manipulation of the point of view. And, yes, I use the word manipulation intentionally. The full-omniscient point of view allows her to accomplish things (in only 209 pages) that us mortals simply cannot achieve. One is the book’s ending: Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision. The writer in me (and the teacher) asks how the sentence changes if you switch the verb tense. Have had is past perfect. Something happened before something else –– a brilliant way to conclude a novel about feminist themes. What is to follow? What will come next? And this speaks to the book’s precision.

Point of view is where many writers begin when they settle into a project. I’m working on the second draft of a book that took far too long to write. The point of view was a struggle. I wrote the first 30 to 50 pages three times, using three different points of view. Finally settling on one that felt right –– present tense, first-person.

My friend (and former professor) Rick Demarinis, author of The Art and Craft of the Short Story and numerous novels, used to say when a scene is going nowhere change point of view. He used this as a way to jump start a piece of writing that seemed to have no energy. One thing he did was to take a random (or seemingly random) photograph of people in interesting states and write a scene about it. If the scene was a dud, he’d change the energy of the scene by writing the same story from the point of view of another character in the photo.

Here are two pictures. (Since deleted.)

Think about how the scene changes depending on whose perspective you choose and whether you use first-, second- or third-person point of view. Give it a try.

And read Woolf’s To The Lighthouse.


Unknown said...

Top photo: Is he sneezing? coughing? appalled by what he just said that he can't take back? about to throw up? Is she germophobic? stunned by what he said? wondering whether the food is safe to eat?

Next photo: The woman in the background is eavesdropping like mad but concealing her interest very well, so she can hear more and more of their very subtle but pointed conversation. Or she is quite deaf and oblivious to the plot that is being hatched at the next table, which is about to erupt in a flurry of gunfire and broken glass. Or she is taking mental notes about the beginnings of their argument, which she will file away and forget and never develop.



Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Well said! Handling Point of View (and what John Gardener – I think – called "psychic distance") is one of the hardest things for my students to learn, along with"Show, don't tell." They often switch POV back and forth in the same scene without realising the implications on their writing. AS you suggest, mastering POV manipulation takes great skill.

John R. Corrigan (D.A. Keeley) said...

Thanks for reading (and posting!). I, too, spend a lot of time talking about Gardner's psychic distance chart with students. I recently read a bunch of stories that made me think requiring beginning writers to start with first-person might be the way to go, although more heavy-handed than I believe I should be.