Monday, July 2, 2012

Radical Writing Advice: Perspective

Perspective. POV. First person, second person, third person, omnipotent. As a writer, you've surely at least heard these mentioned. You may or may not remember what they are. Perhaps your time in school was long enough ago that you've integrated the information but the labels fell off long ago. You may use some of them or a combination. Or you may just write and see what happens.

Perspective goes beyond who is speaking. I mean, obviously, who is speaking is important unless you are inentionally obfuscating the narrator. But even then, perspective is used with intent.

Before I write more, I want to share a video I found, which led to this week's topic.

As you know, last week I talked about dialogue. About being in the world around you for authentic conversation in your writing. When I was preparing that writing, I had mentioned sushi-go-round, more accurately called kaiten sushi. I wanted a picture and was surfing my photos and online.And, surprise - but not really if I'd thought about it - I found videos of kaiten sushi bars.

One of those videos caught my attention and I was going to include it last week as a postscript to my piece. Then I realized, it was a perfect companion to this topic of perspective.

So, before I delve into this any further, watch this video. It's a little long for some of you, I know. So feel free to watch a part of it, although if you stop early, you will miss the trip through the kitchen.

Perspective. From the point of view of the belt at the sushi go round. Thank you, MJRecession, whoever and wherever you are. After the video, I will continue with this week's topic.

How much did you make it through of the nearly 8 minutes? Did you see the kitchen? The reaction of the diners as it emerged on the belt from the kitchen?


I'm a fan of sushi. Regular sushi where you order off a menu and the kaiten or conveyor belt style. I find the sushi-go-rounds entertaining and relaxing and it's good for those "I can't make up my mind" times. I also enjoy the opportunity for overheard conversations and interactions - or lack of - of the people around me, sometimes nearly on top of me. And I've never thought about things from the point of view of a plate on the belt.

It can be challenging to write from a perspective we've never experienced, or perhaps one that is in direct conflict to our own. What do we do to quiet our voice, our bias, or preferences? How do we get to the point of the other if a character appears who is unlike us?

This is not an impossible task, but it can be a challenge. What we risk when we write from a perspective which isn't us or which we have no direct experience of is having our characters become cariacatures, stiff, cliche. But no, I'm not saying that we should try to experience everything or to stick only to topics we've experienced firsthand.

I am saying that we need to open up our experience of perspectives and to be aware of perspective when we write. Opening up perspective experiences may include something like this video. What does it look like from the sushi belt? Doesn't a sushi chef in a kaiten restaurant have a similar perspective to that? Write a story of a sushi chef who works in the front, with his creations going around and around, as he monitors what is popular and what they need more of, if something is staying there too long. What about the customers who don't see what they want and order off the sushi chart? Who want the orange spicy sauce? The low salt soy sauce or the teriyaki sauce? What does the sushi chef see?

What are some other perspectives you could try? Just for something new? How about lying on the sidewalk (or near it) of a popular running and walking track, perhaps near a lake or a river? What is the perspective from the ground up as people jog by, or pass on bicycles, the strolling walkers and the practicing race walking groups? You've probably sat on a bench or a fence or in a picnic chair as walkers and runners go by, but take it one layer lower. Or go sit outside a restaurant with big glass windows and watch the people inside. What do people do when they notice you noticing them? What do you notice about the flow of traffic; perhaps how do the customers travel through the space as compared to the people who work there? Can you tell who's worked there a long time from the newbies by their behavior?

Very important in this proces of learning about other perspectives is to talk to people. Talk to the people who are doing what your characters are doing. Open your mind and meet them with honest curiosity about their experience. Talk to them. Ask some questions and then listen. What do they want to tell you? What is important to them about this thing or this place or where they've come from?

A few months ago I took an online writing workshop with Inga Muscio and she had one assignment which relates to the idea of perspective, as well as other things good for writing. Her assignment was to go to a place where you normally don't go and interact. Talking to people who are unlike us or more like our characters will be beneficial to our stories. There are limits, of course. If you're writing a horror story you probably don't want to meet with an unstable serial killer; no. But if your serial killer grew up in a small house by the railroad tracks in a very small town, you might at least find a small town to visit. Meet some people.

For example, my grandmother taught in a one-room school house which was in the high desert, along the highway. Her trailer was next to the school house and the main part of town was a gas station-library-diner-post office-grocery store across the street. There was a small compound of a few houses a couple miles up the road for state highway workers, and a couple of houses near the multipurpose building across the road. But most of the people lived on ranches and farms miles away in both directions, in the hills. That is probably the smallest place I've ever visited and I'm sure it's grown at least a little by now.

So even in that itsy bitsy town, there is a social gathering place. You could stop for some gas, sit down for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee and probably meet at least two or three people. Talk to them. Get a sense of their stories.

Perspective. Like the difference between a road leading to the horizon in a painting or the cat which looks like it's sitting on the table leg with the blue pitcher floating above the table, the story changes with skill and with authentic knowledge of the origin.

Perspective is a tool we can use as writers to reveal parts of the story and obscure other information until we want the readers to know. But poorly written perspective has that cat levitating the pitcher and the floor in the room crawling up the wall. Spend a little time out in the world.

Or borrow other's research when you can. Like the sushi video. There are characters for stories in there. People's reactions - those who notice, those who don't, those who are excited or giggling and those who look embarassed or confused.

Step out of yourself and into the world. Into others' worlds at times.

Well written perspective helps hold the reader in the space and time of your story.

And there is nothing wrong with writing about a cat levitating a blue pitcher. Just make sure that is what you intended. You might even want to try lying on the floor with a blue pitcher above you and see if you can levitate it yourself. Get down there and see what the cat sees, feel what it's like.