Catching My Breath: Point of View

I collect typewriters. Kids nowadays may not even know what a typewriter is. It's a keyboard. They "keyboard or text." They don't type. Okay, maybe some of them call it typing. I hated that I was forced to take typing in eighth grade. It was like they were saying, "you're going to be a secretary when you grow up." Taking "Home Ec" said, "and you'll cook his food and iron and mend his clothes."

Even though I never entertained the idea of being a secretary, I'm actually thrilled that I learned how to touch type and not hunt and peck. However my fingers are no longer strong enough to pound away on my collection of Underwoods, Royals, the L.C. Smith pictured here, or my Swiss Hermes Baby. I used to have an Olivetti portable that got me through high school and college. It typed in a script font. I wish it hadn't disappeared in some move from one part of the country or another. I miss that celadon green machine. I typed many a book report on it.

But just as that Olivetti went missing, so has part of my memory. I can't, for the life of me, remember reading "The Catcher in the Rye" in school. I'm sure we must have. I had some great English teachers, like Mr. Longobardi and Mrs. Sherman. I took Honors and Advanced Placement classes. I know my mother loved J.D. Salinger and his books, "Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters" and "Franny and Zooey" were definitely on our shelves near "Catcher."

I knew when my mother had a crush on an author because his books were shelved together. My mom grew up with Philip Roth, and his books all lived together on the shelves. She knew Norman Mailer and his books also got prime placement. D.H. Lawrence was a little scattered, and so was James Joyce. "Ulysses" was over here, and "Portrait of the Artist" was somewhere else. Sometimes I used to read the titles on the spines in the order my mother had placed them, wondering if there was a secret message to be decoded there. My mom died of cancer six days after I turned twenty-four. I inherited her book collection. I didn't keep the paperbacks, alas they were yellowed and reverting to a powdered form of what they had been, pulp. I also regrettably didn't keep her Remington typewriter. I don't have a Remington now. I wish I did.

But thankfully the Seattle Public Library has a much better organized shelving system than mom. I was also thankful that I got there before they closed this week due to budget cuts. This is nuts. They should close the military bases for a week, not the library. Okay, I know I can't really compare books to well... okay, I'm not going there. I did go to the library and I did get a copy of "The Catcher in the Rye" and I read it last weekend. I don't think I re-read it though. I'm now wondering if my school district was one of the crazy ones that banned "Catcher" back then. (late 70's) Book censorship is a nasty virus. I dealt with it firsthand back in 1995 when my book, "Private I. Guana" came out and I was accused of writing a children's book on cross-dressing. I also know that author Ellen Hopkins is presently fighting the battle against censorship, and I stand beside her in solidarity.

However I didn't set out to write about that...

I wanted to talk about point of view, also known as narrative mode. You know, first person, third person, etc... "Catcher" is quite a taut piece of work. It is 214 pages of first person virtually stream-of-conscious narrative inside the head of Holden Caulfield, which can be mighty claustrophobic. Considering he is mostly mentally unstable, and drinking himself into a stupor for the majority of the book, this makes for a tense and edgy read. Holden speaks to the reader as if the reader is sitting next to him in the dorm, the train, the bar, wherever he is... he digresses and digresses, and is even accused of digression by one of his teachers during a speech he has to give, the story of set digression is a digression itself.

"Catcher" was originally considered an adult book, but somehow, it crossed over and became YA. Holden is sixteen, and even though he does very adult things, like frequenting bars and trying to be with a prostitute, he is still in school, albeit freshly expelled. Rules in writing have baffled and amused me for a long time now, and especially since I started working on a novel.

For years I have written children's books and illustrated them. Some of them are written in first person, like "The Night I Followed the Dog," and "Private I. Guana." Some are in third person like "When Pigasso Met Mootisse," and "Roberto the Insect Architect." And then there is "Peek-A Who?" It doesn't really have a voice and yet it has sold the most of any of my books. (Okay, it is a board book...) I was told when I first started writing children's books that you shouldn't use first person. Huh? The reason given was because the child may be confused if the book is read to them, or if they are reading it themselves as to who "I" is. "I" wasn't confused when I was a child. If I didn't get something I always asked for an explanation. I also didn't listen to those people who said there were those rules.

Then I started working on a novel, and I found out there were more rules. Not really rules, but guidelines. The first gray area I stumbled into was the YA versus adult arena. I try not to "write for grade level." I just write the story as it wants to be told, and the story finds its level, that has always seemed to work for me before. It turns out that your main character in a YA novel can't be older than eighteen or nineteen. Holden is doing just fine being sixteen. My character ranges from early childhood up to twenty-two. Apparently in YA books you can't be a college student. That's good for my character because he really doesn't go to college. Unfortunately those generalities don't really make gray areas turn into black and white.

Truth be told, I've never been good at following rules. Oh I learn them, and I try them out, and then I try to break them. Not to be an outcast on purpose, but just to, as Holden would say, "not be a phony." I want to be different. I want to be who I am, which is just not really normal. My mom always told me that when they made her, they broke the mold. Maybe I'm trying to make my own mold. Maybe it will break me. Maybe it won't. I did another silly thing. Besides making my character too old for YA, I wrote the darn thing in second person.

Second person? I might as well have written it in Esperanto. (My grandfather actually came from the town where that language was created.) Nobody writes in second person. Except maybe Jay McInerney. Come on, don't you remember "Bright Lights Big City?"

You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not. A small voice inside you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already. The night has already turned on that imperceptible pivot where two A.M. changes to six A.M. You know this moment has come and gone, but you are not yet willing to concede that you have crossed the line beyond which all is gratuitous damage and the palsy of unraveled nerve endings. Somewhere back there you could have cut your losses, but you rode past that moment on a comet trail of white powder and now you are trying to hang on to the rush. Your brain at this moment is composed of brigades of tiny Bolivian soldiers. They are tired and muddy from their long march through the night. There are holes in their boots and they are hungry. They need to be fed. They need the Bolivian Marching Powder.

That is second person courtesy of Jay.

I didn't do second person just to be difficult though. I studied it from every angle, and I didn't re-read "Bright Lights Big City." (All I can really remember about it now is that there was a ferret that was loose in the apartment.) I did a lot of prep before I started writing. One of the things I did was to take what I thought was the opening paragraph - and I wrote it in first, second and third person and I read it over and over and over. What I came away with was:

First person was too limiting.
Third person was too distancing.
Second person was just right.
Just like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Here. I'll share my experiment with you:


She’s staring at the door to the guest room in what used to be Jack’s home.  The door is closed. She’s howling like she’s caught in a trap.  “Jack, let Cleo in,” Hannah calls. The door opens a crack, and the cat slips in. The ceiling seems higher.  The walls seem closer.  It’s like that scene in “Star Wars” in the intergalactic trash compactor; the walls are moving inwards.  It’s a good thing the bathroom is right there, one door away.  That would be called a “master suite” in a fancy home, but not in this case.  In this case it is one step away from prison.  Meet Jack Banks, the inmate. Under ordinary circumstances Jack would get up to greet you, which would be a low mumbled, “hey,” but these aren’t ordinary circumstances.


You are locked in the guest room, in what used to be your home. The ceiling seems higher, inescapable. The walls seem closer. It’s like that scene in “Star Wars” in the intergalactic trash compactor; the walls are moving inwards.  It’s a good thing the bathroom is right there, one door away. That would be called a “master suite” in a fancy home, but not in this case.  In this case it is one step away from prison.  You, Jack Banks are the inmate. Under ordinary circumstances you would get up to say “hey” in your sort of mumbled, barely audible way, but you know these aren’t ordinary circumstances. The cat, Cleo, is outside the door, howling like she’s caught in a trap.  Your stepmother, Hannah,  starts howling, too. “Jack, let that cat in your room, she’s driving us crazy.”  Cleo paces around in circles, convinced that the world is coming to an end, and in some ways it is. 


I am in the guest room in what used to be my home. The door is locked. The ceiling seems higher, inescapable. The walls seem closer. It’s like that scene in “Star Wars” in the intergalactic trash compactor, the walls are moving inwards. It’s a good thing the bathroom is right there, one door away. That would be called a “master suite” in a fancy home, but not in this case. In this case it is one step away from prison.  I, Jack Banks, am the inmate.  I would get up to greet you, to say “hey” under ordinary circumstances.  But these aren’t ordinary circumstances.

This is of course not finished text. Just a sample. But it compelled me to keep traveling down that second person road, rules be damned. Now I'm standing at the edge of the precipice, wondering if it is okay to believe in what I did and keep this as an adult novel in second person. Or? I'm not sure. I'm trying to listen to my inner voice, which is the most important one. I'm also looking for threads that will take this novel in perhaps a deeper direction. What I learned from J.D. Salinger and Holden is to be who you are, like it or not. We all have a unique point of view and we have to trust where it comes from, and hopefully where it takes us. 

All that we write may or may not lead to publication, but it may lead to enlightenment. May your search prove thoughtful, provocative, and ultimately fruitful. And may you find your voice. 
With Love,

No comments:

Post a Comment

I welcome your comments, but please play nice! If my feelings get hurt I may have to ask you to take a time out and comments will go away. Think constructive if you must criticize.