Thursday, September 18, 2008

The pause that refreshes...

To quote the Boss, I ain't nothing but tired... travelling constantly this month. And next, come to think of it. Anyway, I'm going to try to post more, but short. :)

I've been thinking a lot about "deep POV," and first let me say that this is not the only or even the best approach to viewpoint. It's more useful in character-focused stories, and, as I say in my POV book, when you want to present the character's inner perception of reality as primary (rather than, say, real reality :).

But let's say that's what you want to do-- acknowledge the primacy in your narrative of the character's perception of reality. Good! I love that. However, I think then writers should focus on what that means, and not assume that it's a matter of names and pronouns ("Never use the character's own name in deep POV" is a "rule" I just heard) or whether words like "thought" and "felt" are verboten, or whether internalization should be in Roman or italic font (why, btw, isn't "italic" capped, if "Roman" is?), or whether thought should be in past or present tense....

I'm not saying all those questions won't come into play, but rather that if you -before- you start to write a scene, park yourself squarely in this person and dedicate yourself to portraying the actual inner experience of being that person, most of those issues will be answered as you write. That is, those are just the manifestations of being in deep POV--- not actually deep POV.

The point is to give the reader that inner experience, and what gives the reader that experience is what you should do. And that might actually meaning doing a bit more narrating to create that for the reader. That is, authenticity-- truly replicating the inner experience-- is not as good as verisimilitude-- creating an experienceable version of the inner experience.

What's the difference? Well, let me turn to my latest, sigh, intellectual project. Many years ago, at the University of Chicago, I took The Modern Novel from the great Joyce scholar Richard Ellman. Of course, Ulysses was the center of the course, and to my unending shame, uh, I read all the dirty parts, and maybe some of the rest, and.... Well, really, one of the most important lessons to learn in college is what to focus on, and there were FIFTEEN modernist (aka, very long) novels to read in a 10-week quarter (please compare to a typical class today, where the poor overworked students had to read FIVE books in 15 weeks). And I knew I was going to write the paper on a Faulkner trope (love Faulkner), and so why....

Well, so here it is, decades later, and I've read only about 70% of the most important novel of yada yada. So anyway, the dh and I decided to embark on a joint re-read of Ulysses recently. He got farther than I did. But I did pay close attention to the "stream of consciousness" sections (mostly in the Leo Bloom passages). Now these were a brave, innovative experiment, trying to truly replicate the workings of a mind:

Singing with his eyes shut. Corney. Met her once in the park. In the dark. What a lark. Police tout. Her name and address she then told with my tooraloom tooraloom tay. O, surely he bagged it. Bury him cheap in a whatyoumaycall. With my tooraloom, tooraloom, tooraloom, tooraloom.

Just like a real mind-- skipping from subject to subject, preoccupied with one (Corney is his wife's lover, or so he thinks), searching for and failing to find words, following a diverting melody....

That extremely deep viewpoint manifestation is infinitely study-able, and has provided fodder for hundreds of doctoral dissertations. However, I found the Bloom passages much less readable (and experience-able) than the more controlled, more "shaped" Stephen Dedalus passages, as here, where he thinks of his mother's death (set up as the topic a paragraph before-- that is, the reader doesn't have to guess):

Stephen, an elbow rested on the jagged granite, leaned his palm against his brow and gazed at the fraying edge of his shiny black coat-sleeve. Pain, that was not yet the pain of love, fretted his heart. Silently, in a dream she had come to him after her death, her wasted body within its loose brown grave-clothes giving off an odour of wax and rosewood, her breath, that had bent upon him, mute, reproachful, a faint odour of wetted ashes. Across the threadbare cuffedge he saw the sea hailed as a great sweet mother by the well-fed voice beside him. The ring of bay and skyline held a dull green mass of liquid. A bowl of white china had stood beside her deathbed holding the green sluggish bile which she had torn up from her rotting liver by fits of loud groaning vomiting.

(Notice that Stephen's thoughts come expressed in perfectly grammatical sentences... he's my kinda guy. :)

The Bloom passage is stream-of-consciousness; the Dedalus passage is deep POV. I have my own preference, obviously. But I would like just to point out that there is a distinction between "replicating" the experience of being inside a mind, and "creating" that experience. Verisimilitude, paradoxically, can be more approachable, more acceptable, than an authenticity-- often we must turn away from what can feel too claustrophobic, disturbing, or confusing. So a slightly less "in your face" approach might actually let the reader overcome that instinctive resistance and then participate in the experience more fully.

We are, after all, already participating in artifice, because language is a construct produced by the collective mind-- but not the same as thought. So even stream-of-consciousness, as it uses words, is less than truly authentic. Similarly, the use of narrative conventions, along with language, can enhance the experience. Notice how Joyce actually sets up the action of a paragraph and then descends into stream-of-consciousness-- that is, the narrative convention of set up isn't just dismissed, but used to ease the reader in, to let the reader feel the setting and context:

Mr Bloom gazed across the road at the outsider drawn up before the door of the Grosvenor. The porter hoisted the valise up on the well. She stood still, waiting, while the man, husband, brother, like her, searched his pockets for change. Stylish kind of coat with that roll collar, warm for a day like this, looks like blanketcloth. Careless stand of her with her hands in those patch pockets. Like that haughty creature at the polo match. Women all for caste till you touch the spot. Handsome is and handsome does. Reserved about to yield. The honourable Mrs and Brutus is an honourable man. Possess her once take the starch out of her.

So don't start with the "rules"-- start inside, and all the "rules" fall away. Don't confuse the phenomena with the neumena-- the external with the essence. Create this experience, and then see if you need to fix anything, and the "rules" might be helpful there. (For example, frequent use of the character name can distract from the reader "inner experience," but use of he/she probably doesn't.)

Just an example based on something I read the other day:

As she listened to his protests, her stomach lurched. She buttered her roll and then smiled at him.

Something happens there between the inside (stomach) and the external action (buttering). What is it? Why put those two together in the same sequence? Maybe what's needed is the teensiest bit of transition between internal feeling and external action... and that's called "intention". That is, she is forming the will to do the action, right? You probably don't have to explain why, but a transition that shows her deciding to act will give the reader more context for experiencing what she experiences. After all, she doesn't just perceive, and she doesn't just act. She also decides. So consider something like:
As she listened to his protests, her stomach lurched. She concentrated on buttering her roll, and when she was calmer, she smiled at him.

Okay, so that wasn't short at all. :)


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