I'm stuck in my novel and don't know what to do. Do you have a few minutes to listen to my obsessive chatter? I'm almost finished. In fact I'm on my last chapter. But the whole time I've been writing I haven't been sure if the book should be written it in first- or third-person. It's in first-person now. The books and characters and scenes come to me in first-person. It flows as I'm writing. I see it in first-person, if that makes sense.
Yet, and perhaps it's insecurity or perhaps all those voices from grad school ("Never, never write in first-person,"), but a few weeks ago I changed the first chapter to third-person and it does sound more sophisticated and literary, and it does give me more freedom to portray (and see) the other characters from different and more complex angles. Yet it's a different book. By merely changing it from first- to third-person, the whole focus of the book changes. Is this a good thing? I dunno.
Has this ever happened to you? I'm embarrassed to admit that I am agonizing over this. In fact, I barely slept last night. I kept printing the first chapter out in first-person, then third. Then I'd make minor changes and print it out in both again. And again. Get the picture? Anyway, thanks for listening. Probably there is no right answer. Probably I could write it both ways and it would work. Maybe I'm just afraid to finish it?
Shifting and Sleepless
My first semester at college, I signed up for Phil 101, Intro to Philosophy. Paunchy and short with shaggy gray hair, the prof would stare off here and there, what you’d expect I guess from a philosophy guy, a little distracted. But when he spoke, you could tell that he cared, and he wanted us to care, twirpy little freshmen that we were.
This guy had no business teaching an introductory philosophy class. He was William H. Gass, philosopher, essayist, fiction writer. National Book Critics Circle, American Book Award, that sort of thing.
“I was alone with all that could happen,” my Phi 101 prof wrote in his short story “The Peterson Kid.” Jammed into that lecture hall, we were a bunch of eighteen-year-olds willing to do pretty much anything to prove that we weren’t really alone. Every one of us thought we were smart. It was too horrible to entertain any other option. I have no idea how many others went on as I did, making out of all that could happen some of the stupidest choices imaginable, which for me meant dropping out of that college where William Gass taught introductory philosophy.
What’s both thrilling and horrifying is that we writers get to choose again and again: what to write, how to write, whether to finish. We are every day alone with all that could happen.
The second week of class, Bill Gass patiently explained to us the Socratic concept of forms. If Plato was right, that pillow on which you toss and turn, Shifting and Sleepless, is but a poor imitation of the true Pillow that exists somewhere beyond the material realm. If he’s right, the novel over which you have debated and worried and cried cannot, despite your best efforts, ever be the true, ideal novel you aim for.
Not that this should stop you from trying. I believe you know this already, Shifting. You sense what your novel could be, and you’re not about to let the possibility of a wrong turn or two steer you from the hard work of getting as close as you can to its truest, best place. Though you want to run like hell and never look back, you’ll stay alone with all that could happen, and you’ll finish that book.
You must silence those voices from grad school. They mean well, really they do, but they don’t know this one particular novel of which you can be the one and only author. You, who’ve turned circles in its messy middle and looked out on all the ways it could go. You don’t really care about sounding sophisticated and literary, love, and you shouldn’t. You must be true to the book, nothing more.
You say there’s more freedom in the third person to see and portray your characters from complex angles. I say we writers have a whole lot more freedom than most of us dare to lay claim to, so much that it’s downright scary, which is why at 4 am you’re pacing the floor as your printer is spewing out pages, some saying “I” and some saying “she,” while your imperfect but nevertheless alluring pillow lies empty. First person can be complex. Third person can be shallow. You can get so close in third that you’re breathing along with your character, and in first you can pull so far back that the reader despairs of ever having known the character at all. It’s thrilling, really, all that can happen, if we allow it.
What you want to know is how to find your way, the best way, the truest way for this story. The book came to you in first person. Does this mean that first person is its best form, the means by which others will come to care deeply about your characters, as you clearly do? Not necessarily. The voice could be only the way in, the entrance to Plato’s cave, as my Phil 101 prof would have it. Inside, there are only shadows thrown by the fire. You have to feel your way, trusting and trusting and trusting. You know yourself to be unreliable, but you trust anyhow, because despite all the voices with their well-meaning rules about not writing in first person and sounding literary and all that, it’s your story, love, and you know it better than anyone.
Sure, the book could work both ways. It could work fifteen ways, or fifteen hundred. The rules, the never, nevers you learned in grad school, those aren’t so much flashlights as speed bumps, so you’ll you ask the right questions, and this you are doing.
What you can trust is yourself, and the book, a book you will finish, dearest, because this story owns you. That comes through in every line of your letter. And short of perfection, that’s the best we can hope for.
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