I and You and We Are All Together

Imagine two different friends have offered you a ticket for the NCAA Final Four Championship. Friend One’ s seats are in the upper deck of the stadium, a vantage point that will allow you to see the entirety of the court and witness the plays unfold as well observe the defensive strategies of each coach. Also, Friend One is a former basketball player himself, so you’ll get some additional insights throughout the game.

Friend Two knows very little about basketball but likes to attend capital-E Events.  Her tickets are four rows from the court, close enough to check out the celebrities and what they’re wearing and actually hear the squeak of sneakers on court and the coaches shouting encouragement from the sidelines.

At this point you might be thinking: What does a basketball game have to do with point of view? 

Actually everything. Ultimately, the invitation you eventually accept will determine how you experience the game. Likewise, choosing a point of view determines a great deal about the experience your reader will have as they enter a poem or a narrative as well as how the speaker/narrator treats the subject matter in a poem or story. 

Point of view is the first “decision” we make when we begin a poem or prose piece. I say “decision” in quotation marks because sometimes the decision is made for us, as in the case of an exercise that dictates we write from the vantage point of a persona, for example. More often it’s an unconscious decision, one that for whatever reason just feels right.

But how many brides buy the one and only wedding dress they tried on? Now it very well may be that the first dress was the right dress, but they likely didn’t know that until they tried on some others. So it is with point of view, and over the next couple of days, I’m going to talk about point of view as a series of deliberate decisions as well as the effect those decisions have on a poem or a piece of prose. Much of what I’m going to share has been adapted from the chapter on point of view in Janet Burroway’s fine book Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. I’ve found that much of what is true for fiction writers regarding POV is true for writers of creative nonfiction as well as for poetry. 

Burroway suggests that the term point of view is synonymous with “vantage point”: That is Who is standing Where to watch the scene? This is certainly applicable to the tale of the two tickets that I shared above, and how the different vantage point determine quite different experiences.

Since we as poets and prose writers are dealing with words on a page, a better set of questions might be the following:

  • Who Speaks? 
  • To Whom? 
  • In What Form? 
  • At What Distance from the “Action”?

Who Speaks, of course, refers to the “person” you assign to narrate, first person singular being what I call the default point of view. It’s how we speak about ourselves and our experiences and so it feels both logical and natural to write from the vantage point of “I,” especially when writing memoir. 

But “natural” can be a trapdoor anchoring us to the cement boots of reality. It may be hard for writers of creative nonfiction to depart from the station of what really happened and harder still for writers of fiction or poetry to let go to the initial inspiration and soar into the land of imagination.  

So, how do we get past the aye-yi-yi of too much I I I? Read on. . .