Point of View

In creative nonfiction, especially in personal narratives, we can easily begin to feel imprisoned by the bars of “I, I, I” that tend to pepper our prose.

Obi-Wan: So what I told you was TRUE…from a certain point of view.

Luke: A certain point of view?

Obi-Wan: Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to… depend greatly on our own points of view.

—“Star Wars: Episode VI—Return of the Jedi”

I think that I have discovered a possible form for these notes. That is, to make them include the present—at least enough of the present to serve as a platform to stand upon. It would be interesting to make the two people—I now, I then—come out in contrast. And further, this past is much affected by the present moment. What I write today I should not write in a year’s time.

—Virginia Woolf, “A Sketch of the Past”

In creative nonfiction, especially in personal narratives, we can easily begin to feel imprisoned by the bars of “I, I, I” that tend to pepper our prose. Our points of view can feel limited, isolated or small. But if, as Virginia Woolf suggests, we perch on a platform for viewing the past, why not invite a multiplicity of spectators to join us on the veranda? The variables of point of view in creative nonfiction can be just as numerous and just as effective as those used in fiction and poetry, perhaps even more so since the point (or points) of view in which we choose to tell our stories could, in fact, be the point of the story as well. As the wise Obi-Wan so succinctly tells us, truth is not a fixed adage but a concept that shifts under our gaze, multifaceted, determined by whatever self or persona happens to be in charge at the moment.

In fact, when we think of the term point of view in all its implications, we can see that it’s really an essential aspect of creative nonfiction’s groundwork. “Try to see it from MY point of view,” we often say in heated conversation or, “It’s MY point of view,” when we’re trying to put forth an argument or an opinion. But these phrases often make it seem as though a point of view is a fixed thing, immutable, easily ascertained. The joy of writing and reading creative nonfiction can be precisely that we come to have a multidimensional apprehension of the “truth” of experience. Sometimes this approach means that we will employ literal point-of-view digressions, such as second or third person, but we might consider variables of the I-narrator as different points of view as well.

Often we assume that if we speak in an I-voice, it is always the same “I.” But this “I” is shaped by time, by experience and by mood. There’s the “I” with a sense of humor about the whole thing, the “I” who is still puzzled, the “I” who has wisdom to impart, the “I” who has an ax to grind. There is also what we might call the “Lyric I”: the “I” who is silent; the “I” who speaks through fragmentation, through pure observation, through white space—the “I” who disappears into the gaps, eclipsed by language and metaphor.

We can also think of point of view as donning a pair of binoculars: How far can we see across time and space? Tense and time are just as much a part of point of view as the use of first, second or third person. When we speak from a child’s point of view in the present tense, it is obviously not the child writing the prose, but we imagine ourselves into her point of view for a while, and the present tense lends itself to the immediacy of such childlike encounters. And when we look back on that child from the adult point of view, we are pretending to be a wiser adult, but it’s still a mere persona, or point of view, we’re assuming and trying to make credible. When we imagine a time before we were born—imagining the points of view of our parents or grandparents, say—we are assuming a high-powered pair of binoculars. Here we are stretching the boundaries of creative nonfiction but still staying in that realm since we give clues that this is not a literal truth but an imaginative one. We are exercising our facilities of empathy.

Bernard Cooper, author of “Truth Serum,” often uses the future tense, looking ahead into the future beyond the moment he’s describing, using key phrases such as “I don’t yet know that…” or “I can’t know it at the time, but. …” These kinds of phrases automatically elicit a complex sense of point of view: The narrator is consciously positioned in a place where he knows both the past and the future; therefore, the point of view is not necessarily the author’s but that of a persona he has created to afford the best view of both.

So these issues of point of view really point to one of the most fundamental skills in creative nonfiction: writing not as the “author” but from a constructed persona, even if that persona is taking on the “I” to tell the story. That persona is formed by time, mood and distance from the events that are being narrated. And if we decide to literally foreground the artifice of this construction by using more stylized points of view, such as second and third person, we create even more of a relationship between the narrator and the narrated, a high awareness that we are engaged in the reconstruction of experience and not pretending to be mere transcribers of that experience.

Some Variables You (or I/One/We/She/He/They) Might Consider When Thinking About Point of View in Creative Nonfiction

The “I” point of view (First person, singular and/or plural: How far can “I” see?)

• First person, present, childlike

• First person, present, adult

• First person, past, looking back (into the distance or just to yesterday)

• First person, future (looking ahead)

• First person, moody: variables of the “I” that determine voice— funny, rueful, nostalgic, earnest, sad, etc.

• The Lyric I: speaking through silence, through poetic devices or through other forms/voices (For example: use of the fragmented braided essay form or the collage essay, where white space implies silence, and meaning is created through oblique connections of images and metaphors rather than through a straightforward narrative story)

• The “I” who is “We” or “One” (From Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting”: “No one perhaps has ever felt passionately toward a lead pencil. But there are circumstances in which it can become supremely desirable to possess one; moments when we are set upon having an object, an excuse for walking half across London between tea and dinner. … The hour should be the evening and the season winter. …”)

The “You” point of view

(Second person, singular and/or plural)

• The commanding “You” (as in “how to” pieces): the “You” that is kind of the “I” but could also be “You.” (From Brenda Miller’s “How to Meditate”: “On arrival, huddle in the Volkswagen with your friends and eat all the chocolate in the car. Chocolate chips, old KitKats, the tag end of a Hershey’s bar—do not discriminate.”)

• The “You” who is definitely the “I”: talking to yourself, about yourself, by way of talking to the reader. (From Nick Flynn’s “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City”: “If you had been raised in a village 200 years ago, somewhere in Eastern Europe, say, or even on the coast of Massachusetts, and your father was a drunk, or a little off, or both, then everyone in the village, those you grew up with and those who knew you only from a distance, they would all know that the town drunk or the village idiot was your father. …They would look into your eyes to see if they were his eyes, they would notice if you were to stumble slightly as you stepped into a shop, they would remember that your father, too, had started with promise, like you.”)

• The “You”who is definitely “You”: direct address to another character (implies an “I” is speaking). (From Abigail Thomas’s “Safekeeping”: “Before I met you I played my music on a child’s Victrola. …I am remembering this time just before I knew you, and then I knew you, and then you died. It makes the parentheses within which I lived most of my life. Not knowing you, knowing you, and then you died.”)

• The “You” who is all of us: “You do this. You do that. …”

The “She/He/They” point of view

(Third person, omniscient or another character’s perspective altogether)

• The “She” that is “I”: speaking of the self in the third person (From Abigail Thomas’ “Safekeeping”: “A middle-aged teacher is walking down Broadway in her big white sneakers and her yellow socks, her too long skirt (stained where three drops of hair-tinting stuff fell on it); she is wearing her daughter’s jacket, a new red velvet scarf and her two haircuts, both bad, and she is thinking about desire. …”)

• The “She” that is “She” told by an “I”: describing events you can’t really know about, but maintaining a subtle “I” (from Paisley Rekdal’s “The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee”: “Age 16, my mother loads up red tubs of noodles, teacups chipped and white-gray as teeth, rice clumps that glue themselves to the plastic tub sides or dissolve and turn papery in the weak tea sloshing around the bottom.”)

• The “He” that is really “He”: inhabiting someone else’s point of view entirely (from Nick Flynn’s “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City”: “My father lifts the receiver in the night, speaks into it, asks Where’s the money? asks Why can’t I sleep? asks Who left me outside? The phone rings on a desk when he lifts it, the desk somewhere in Texas, someone is always supposed to be at that desk but no one ever is, not at night. A machine speaks while my father tries to speak, it doesn’t listen, it only speaks, my father’s face reflected dimly on the screen.”)

All of these variables are artistic constructions, but if a particular technique is used too self-consciously, it may feel shallow, like a gimmick. There must be some deeper reason to shift point of view, and ideally the right point of view will find its way to the writer, not the other way around. For instance, if we need physical distance from the self in order to speak about the self truthfully, then the third-person point of view will enhance that distance and help bolster the meaning of the essay. If we feel we are writing a universal experience, not just a private one, the second-person point of view may come in handy. Point of view is innately tied to voice, and a strong, well-executed point of view will also lead to a strong voice, one that will be clearly heard above the mayhem of the world.