A Walrus in an Octopus’ Garden

A Walrus in an Octopus’ Garden, by Vanessa Cavendish

“She gave the fragile-looking bag a little shake and it echoed like a cargo hold as a number of heavy objects rolled around inside it.” – J. K. Rowling

In her July 7 post, “Wholistic Writing, Part 2,” Breanne posed a slew of questions to get us thinking about our own writing. I personally think each of those questions deserves a post unto itself. I’m working my way through them as best I can.

Question #2: What POV do you prefer to work in? First? Third? Would you ever try a different POV or tense on for size?

What I like best about this second question—it reminds me of Hermione Granger’s purple beaded handbag. Pick it up, look it over; just a straightforward drawstring affair with some neo-Bohemian bling. When you write, who tells your story? Are you a part of it yourself, or do you stand outside, directing and commenting but not, in terms of your writerly perspective, directly involved in the same way that a narrator-character would be? The more you rummage around inside, though, trying to pull out an honest response that makes sense of just who the who is that’s doing the telling, the more you realize the question’s got no bottom to it. Because of the mind-expansion charm embedded in the phrasing, almost any answer will appear to be several times larger than the question, a literal impossibility that leaves me scratching my poor, muggle-brained head. That’s the magic of a provocative question.

When you’re little, you practice who you intend to become. No shock there; we see it all the time in kids at make-believe and dress-up. We may come loaded with certain genetic presets, but the things we make up about ourselves mostly get pulled out of thin air and limited experience. You can set out to be Wonder Woman, but that doesn’t stop you from turning into Lady Di or Barbie or Hillary Clinton. Or King Tutankhamen, either. We feel completely free to mix and match elements of our personalities for what seems like an eternity, until one day, the world—or maybe it’s something biological—toggles a switch marked “conscious awareness” and one bank of stadium lights after another goes dark, accompanied by a sound-effect groan like a dying-generator. For some reason beyond my understanding, we each decide to wander down a single poorly lit corridor with damn few doors left open to us—and to call it who we are.

As if to compensate for such a self-imposed limitation, the MFA-approved fictional default POV is omniscient third-person. If I had to guess I’d say that every story I’ve ever written has cycled through that mode in at least one of its iterations. It rarely satisfies me. In this I know full well that I do not represent the norm among writers. I’ll grant you, there might be a flaw in my circuitry. I like the first person. You might call me narcissistic; I say it keeps me honest. Then again, the way I was brought up, “telling stories” means lying through your teeth, and I was a hard case to rear.

Friend of mine once pointed out the fact that most of human communication consists of pointing out the obvious: Looks like rain. Them little puppies is so damn cute! These hiking shorts make my ass look gigantic, don’t they? You get my drift. So forgive me if I repeat what you’ve read in practically every third issue of Writer’s Digest—that first person narration limits you to the perceptions and other information available to a single individual. But just let me ask you one thing: How much of a hardship has that been for you so far in your grown-up life?

I am a nosy and presumptuous individual and I will snoop around in your mental drawers the minute your back is turned. Don’t take it personally; it’s not about you, and I do recognize it as a problem, so I only have but eleven steps of the program left to go. Point being, when I try to tell a story from what I call (referring once again to my own condition as a writer and not to yours, necessarily) the third-person obnoxious, I feel I really ought to have a search warrant.

Therapists have been telling me for decades that I have boundary issues. You, me, Jesus and John Lennon, if the truth be told.

Look at it this way: when you blog, do you write in the third person omniscient? Some do. I’ll make you a promise, though. If I ever get around to replacing “This is an example of a WordPress page, blah, blah, blah…” under my About tab, it will not read, “Vanessa Cavendish began writing tales of the rural American gothic experience at the age of…” because nowhere in any of my files will you find a diagnosis of dissociative personality disorder.

So let me set this up, and you can have all the fun you want knocking it down.

You and I are fictional onions. I might dress plain but I think gaudy, and I will never tire of shopping for and accessorizing my personality. People who say, “I know who I am,” bore me to frozen freaking tears, because everybody needs a makeover, and I am not talking two or three times in your life as some sort of psychic overhaul brought on by midlife crisis. Some folks, first thing when they wake up, they go put on a face. Me, I sit down to write while the coffee’s making. But it’s the same process. The day begins with, “Who the fuck did I wake up this morning?”

For me, there is continuity enough in the question itself, in the persistent asking of it. When I talk to myself, I don’t want to sound like the voice coming out of my radio that spent all that tuition and studied so hard to sound like the signal coming from every other station. When I write, I might grate on your ear, I might sound like home sweet home, or I might come off every bit as exotic as you do to me.

But no, I will not know who I am. Not today, not tomorrow, not from one day to the next. I will keep my foot in as many doors as I can down all those dark, other corridors. I will reincarnate one story after another as I call into that creaking-hinged darkness, asking, “Anybody in there?” And my answer will probably always be the obvious.

“Why, yes; I believe it’s me, Vanessa. Do come in!”

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6 responses

  1. Very interesting post, Vanessa.

    I have no problem snooping through someone else’s mental cupboards, closets, and drawers. I find the most interesting things there when I do. Of course, not everyone likes me poiking about in their bits and pieces, but I promise, I put them back nice and neat.

    Mostly I write novels in third person POV, but most often from a my main character’s perspective. I don’t jump into another character’s head, and then another, the way some authors do. But how they act and what they say gives a fairly good idea (I think) of what they are thinking and feeling, even if my main character misinterprets it.

    So why not just write in first person if I’m going to stick to one person’s story? Because for me first person is WAY too close. I don’t want to be my character, just watch him or her and record what they are doing, saying and feeling.

    But that’s just me…

    by the way, I love Hermione’s bag. So many possibilities in there, a lot like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag. Never know what’s going to pop out of it next.

  2. If I ever get around to replacing “This is an example of a WordPress page, blah, blah, blah…” under my About tab, it will not read, “Vanessa Cavendish began writing tales of the rural American gothic experience at the age of…” because nowhere in any of my files will you find a diagnosis of dissociative personality disorder.

    Oh I laughed hard at this point, Vanessa. Loved it. I must have a little of that dissociateve thing going on because my About page is in 3rd but the rest of my blog is in second or first.

    My novel is written in first, both of the shorts just placed were in first, but the latest submission is a third person POV. I tried it just to see if I could. And it was fun, and for that story it worked. So I guess it just depends on the story, with me.

    I’m still giggling at the idea of getting up in the morning and looking in the mirror wondering who the fuck I might be that day, hahaha, because you never know…it could change, I guess. Those sorts of things tend to sneak up on a person.

  3. This is such a wonderful post! Vanessa, I just love your writing voice. I love how you can extend a question to this point. I nodded my head in agreement to most of this. Often, I DO wake up something of a different me, and I love it.

    • Yup, I never know who I’ll be when I wake up … takes at least two cups of coffee for even a remotely accurate answer, lol.

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