The golden rule is that there are no golden rules. — George Bernard Shaw
I believe in the Golden Rule – The Man with the Gold… Rules. — Mr. T
Understanding both of these statements is essential, I think, to the writing of good fiction and nonfiction equally. Both are true in their own ways and, when examined together, provide a fairly good lens through which to view the craft of writing. Because truth, in all matters, is never absolute, never exact. Truth wanders a scale, making the possibility for truth possible in all instances, to any degree, depending on your personal scale. Something that is true to one person can be deemed untrue by another. So is the case with these two statements. And so is the case with all instances of the written word, whether fiction or nonfiction — it’s all a not-so-simple matter of perspective.
Consider Shaw’s statement: The golden rule is that there are no golden rules. It’s not false. It’s simply not necessarily true, or rather — it’s true only in its own way. Many might say, when applied to writing, that his words are unequivocally false, that there are rules. And there are rules, very important rules that we all must learn as writers, the most important of which is that there are no rules. Yet, there are rules. Nothing is simple, and you shouldn’t want it to be.
Mr. T’s statement, I believe in the Golden Rule – The Man with the Gold… Rules is perhaps truer than Shaw’s. Of course, you’ll disagree if you don’t care for gold. But, let’s say that the person with the most of a valuable commodity… rules. What’s valuable depends on you, and what you value creates the scale by which you judge truth. As a writer, knowledge of craft is what should be most valuable to you. For Mr. T, it’s gold.
We might also apply Einstein’s statement to our argument: “You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.” For writers, this statement might be better amended to: “You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to break the rules to play better than anyone else.”
So, why didn’t I just start with Einstein? Well, because it’s not that simple. Like the other two quotes, the truth, or validity, of this statement also depends on your scale, on what you value in terms of craft. More importantly, we begin this way because the process of determining the validity of a broken rule will also depend on a similar sliding scale and process.
I like to write mostly fiction. I like it because it’s a genre in which everything I write can be interpreted as “wrong,” yet nothing is impossible, which is where that sliding scale of truth comes into play. One of the techniques I enjoy most is manipulating point of view, breaking the rules of perspective in interesting ways that serve the story. The ‘rules’ of point of view (POV) are important and fun rules to break, but probably the most controversial and criticized. Too many of the writers I talk to have been taught that you can’t switch POV, that you must pick a POV and absolutely stick with it until the end of the scene. This is a truly absurd statement. This is limiting POV to two categories — black and white. However, there’s a whole grey area of POV in between, and good writers learn to surf that grade to make interesting, if not innovative, choices. But, you can’t just switch POV for no reason, or whenever you feel like it. You have to have a justification for switching POV, and it must be executed correctly, using that grey area as a means of travel. But that’s fiction, and we’re talking about creative nonfiction, which is the mixing of nonfiction with literary elements, and that complicates matters even more.
Why does this complicate matters more? Well, because nothing is simple. More than that, it’s because some rules simply can’t be broken in the real world, such as the fact that in “memoir,” the memories described belong to the person who is writing them down.
But is this completely true?
In the film Adaptation, the writer Charlie Kaufmann depicts himself as Charlie Kaufmann, but in the film he has a twin brother that doesn’t exist in real life. This could work as nonfiction if the imagined twin somehow served Kaufmann’s personal story. If Kaufmann, a middle aged man, had had a twin brother who died during adolescence, then resurrecting him as a 40-year old man, and having the brother represent that loss, could perhaps work as a creative nonfiction piece. But, it’s simply a fictional story in which Kaufmann placed himself.
However, there are instances where the opposite becomes true, when breaking a rule and depicting the impossible is the only way a real story can possibly be told, such as with Art Spiegelman’s Maus, wherein he interviews his father about his experiences in a concentration camp, but depicts Jews as mice, and Nazis as cats. In doing this, the author creates a buffer between the reader and the experience, which is important when dealing with a subject as horrific as the Holocaust. The choice to use animals is instrumental to why Spiegelman is able to tell the story, and works for a number of reasons, and on many levels. But let’s consider something slightly less fantastic: shifting point-of-view in a creative nonfiction personal essay, from the first person “I” to another character’s perspective entirely. Is this possible?
It is absolutely possible.
Switching POV is criticized in creative nonfiction even more than it is in fiction. But we can look to “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard as an example of a first person narrator telling a true story that happened to her, who shifts into the POV of another person within that story, for how and why she makes this work.
Beard’s creative nonfiction essay interweaves seemingly disparate pieces of a day in her life when she calls in late for work, starting with Beard being awakened by her dying dog. She tells us about her husband who left her, the squirrels in her attic, and we watch as she and her ex-beauty queen friend comically try to capture them. We see her at work in the University of Iowa physics department, and we observe how she doesn’t fit in. At one point, she wishes that her coworkers would leave so she could get some work done, but then something strange happens — we get a description of her coworkers from the perspective of Gang Lu, a doctoral student who also works there, and who will later shoot and kill five of their coworkers and wound another.
It’s like a physics conference in here. I wish they’d all leave so I can make my usual midafternoon spate of personal calls. I begin thumbing through papers in a businesslike way.
Bob pokes at his pipe with a paper clip. Linhua Shan yawns hugely and then looks embarrassed. Chris erases what he put on the blackboard and tries unsuccessfully to redraw my pecking parakeet. “I don’t know how it goes,” he says to me.
Gang Lu looks around the room with expressionless eyes. He’s sick of physics and sick of the buffoons who practice it. The tall glacial German, Chris, who tells him what to do; the crass idiot Bob, who talks to him as if he is a dog; the student Shan, whose ideas about plasma physics are treated with reverence and praised at every meeting. The woman who puts her feet on the desk and dismisses him with her eyes. Gang Lu no longer spends his evenings in the computer lab down the hall, running simulations and thinking about magnetic forces and invisible particles; he now spends them at the firing range, learning to hit a moving target with the gun he purchased last spring. He pictures himself holding the gun with both hands, arms straight out and steady; Clint Eastwood, only smarter.
At first glance, the shift may appear abrupt. However, if we look closely, we can see that she transitions fairly gracefully into Gang Lu’s POV. Notice in the first paragraph how we are in Beard’s POV, seeing through the “I” perspective. When we move to the next paragraph, the “I” is almost entirely non-existent. There are no judgments in this paragraph, no discernible “observer” of the coworker’s actions, a choice that moves in the perspective away from the “I” and into the grey, creating enough narrative distance between Beard’s POV, and Gang Lu’s, to make shifting perspectives both possible and seamless. But this is only the how. The next thing we need to ask ourselves is — why?
Why is Beard able to shift into Gang Lu’s POV? This is an important question, one that needs an appropriate answer if we are to decide if this decision is “allowed” or where it falls on our scale of truth. So, what grants her the ability to look through Gang Lu’s actual eyes? Well, let’s first take a look at one particular moment that beard decided to include before the actual shooting.
Before I leave the building I pass Gang Lu in the hallway and say hello. He has a letter in his hand and he’s wearing his coat. He doesn’t answer, and I don’t expect him to. At the end of the hallway are the double doors leading to the rest of my life. I push them open and walk through.
This is an extremely important moment for several reasons. First, it’s the day of the shooting, and as Beard is leaving the building, she passes the gunman Gang Lu, who is heading to the conference room where the shooting takes place, which holds more significance for a later moment, too. She is the last person to have contact with him aside from the people he will shoot, so this, in part, licenses her to tell his story but, more importantly — he is holding the letter from which she later extrapolates the sentiments expressed by him when she enters his POV. She was in the presence of those thoughts in the literal form of the letter, just as she narrowly escaped her own fate. She could have been in that building, she could have been dead herself. No one else is more qualified to tell the story because of this. She knew him, she saw how he acted, and what his expressions were like.
Now, we know how she switches, and why she can, but what reason does she have for shifting to his POV? She cannot do this if her decision to do so is arbitrary. So, we must ask — what does being in his perspective accomplish in telling the story? How does it serve the story? What would be lost on the reader if she chose not to do this?
What we need to consider when looking back on the scene in the conference room, when we see the scene through Gang Lu’s eyes and hear his thoughts, is that Beard wouldn’t have had any idea what he was actually thinking about, and would have no reason to speculate that he was planning to shoot them all. She would have no way to provide the information she does about Gang Lu from her own present “I” POV. We need to know that Gang Lu is planning the shooting for the sake of tension. We are given an extremely important detail in the form of an image at the end of this paragraph, when Lu “pictures himself holding the gun with both hands, arms straight out and steady; Clint Eastwood, only smarter,” and this image is disarming. It tells us that someone is going to get shot.
Most times, when this essay is discussed, writing students comment that they don’t understand how she can describe Gang Lu’s emotions and thoughts from his own POV. They ask why. I’m happy when I hear this. It’s the first and most important question we can ask ourselves when dealing with any craft technique as delicate and daring as what Beard accomplishes here. It’s important because we have an obligation as writers to seek out answers to these questions. If we only ask the question, and fail to find the answer, then we cannot “learn the rules of the game,” as Einstein tells us we must, if we one day wish to play as well, or better than anyone else. And there is even more to be discovered in this essay, more to learn when we consider the rest of the text, and examine how these concepts and reasoning apply to the narrative whole.
Making these determinations is not difficult, however, both in others’ writing, and our own. Even when we are comfortable with handling craft techniques such as the one we reviewed here, it’s sometimes even more difficult to decide if a shift in POV is ultimately the right choice, especially when they work. I’ve been writing an essay for two years now about an experience I had boarding the subway as a young autistic boy was being violently subdued by his mother just a few seats away, and the experience of having to sit there and watch. The narrative cuts between the subway ride and moments from my childhood with my own mother, who was also physically and mentally abusive. One thing I considered was entering the boy’s POV. I believe my own experiences with my mother license me to take the liberty of speaking for the boy. I was that boy, trying desperately to escape the clutches of abuse. In the end, I decided not to enter the boy’s POV; however, I feel that shift in POV would have been a justifiable decision in terms of craft, supported by the scenes of my youth that parallel his experience. But ultimately, I decided that this shift did not serve the story.
Beard’s essay breaks the traditional rules of memoir when she chooses to shift into another character’s point of view. By doing so, she reinvented the laws of POV in creative nonfiction. It’s important that we experiment with craft. We are not simply writing stories. The emotional roots of a narrative dig down to beneath the very structure, and run through every element within the narrative’s design. So, we must try to understand the various craft techniques that are available to us. Because if we understand the rules, then we can break them, and sometimes even change the way people think about them. One of the best ways to begin understanding that process is by reading works that push the envelope creatively, which is not simple.
But, nothing is simple, and you shouldn’t want it to be.[boxer set =”telesk”]