This week, my students and I have been talking a lot about point of view in writing. One class came up with some really brilliant observations about how Ann Patchett’s perspective on Lucy Grealy (in her book Truth and Beauty) limits, but also deepens, the memoir. Some of my other classes have talked about how using third person point of view puts distance between the reader and the writer – holding the reader at arm’s length so to speak.
All of this discussion has gotten me thinking about what perspective we use when we write. Do we tell things only from our point of view (using “first person” in literary terms), or do we step outside of ourselves (a la Tracy Kidder) and write about something with which we are familiar but which is not our own story, at least not directly.
I wonder if some of this is determined by what we, as writers, can handle at the time we are writing. I know that I cannot write about experiences as they happen (except perhaps in a journal) because I’m not clear enough in my feelings and thoughts to get them into words fully yet. I usually have to wait a long time – sometimes years – to put something on paper. The perspective of time seems to add language to the experience, and if an experience is worth writing about all that time later, I find that I can still delve into the emotions and memories of the time as if they were very recent.
Some writers seem to be able to capture the moment immediately though. I think of all those writers who penned lyrical, painful, insightful words after the 9/11 attacks. I was still dumbfounded by the images and could not have been able to find words for what I felt and saw. But some among us are able to use the rawness of experience to fuel language.
Maybe this is one of the great things about the writing community; maybe we need people who capture things “right then” and also folks who reflect more slowly. Perspectives are, after all, not better or worse, just unique, as if the experience of each of us.