Notes on My Notes on the Teaching of Point of View in a Craft Class

Lower down on this page is a diagram I made in PowerPoint when I taught Fiction Writing: Level I at Gotham Writers Workshop five years ago, before Emily and I moved up to Kingston. (The JPEG is small, but if you click on it, it’ll open a larger version of the image as a new page.)

I can’t remember at this point if I ever actually handed this out in class. I don’t think I did. I did include the diagram in my lecture notes, so maybe I drew this on the chalkboard for my students? Possibly.

This was for my lecture on point of view in fiction. My notes start with this Mel Brooks quote: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” Which I included, I think, as a way to start a conversation about how we tell stories. The meaning of a story is not just derived from the causal sequence of events that make it up—this happened, and then that happened—but also by who’s doing the telling, and the distance or proximity that the narrator claims to have had to those events. History may be written by the victors, but stories get told in the voices of everybody.

Maybe this is a variant of the question in the title of John Ciardi’s book on teaching poetry, How Does a Poem Mean?—which always baffled me as a kid; my dad used the book to teach middle-school English—in this case, how does a story mean? Not what is the meaning of a story, but how does it do meaning?

Sort of like the question by which a writer should always approach his or her peers’ work, in a workshop or elsewhere: What is this story trying to do? How can it do what it’s trying to do better?

Here’s another section of my point-of-view lecture notes:

Who is doing the telling?  
Whose story (action, plot, events) is it? these two questions, distance/difference between narrator and protagonist; narrative distance?
How long ago did the events occur? temporal distance
How do the events matter to the teller? emotional distance
Can we, the reader, and/or the intended listener, trust the teller’s facts? if not, unreliable narrator
Can we, the reader, and/or the intended listener, trust the teller’s emotions? first person jackass—my own invention, but still useful, I think
Who is the intended listener?  
Where/when is the telling occurring? Nat’s question; his idea re. Kinbote

About “first person jackass”: I’m sure someone’s named or described this idea more articulately and elegantly somewhere, but I came up with this to describe an as-yet-unpublished story I wrote where the narrator can be trusted for factual accuracy, but not for emotional truth—so the experience of reading the sequence of events is through the scrim of his misunderstanding of the meaning of those events.

And about that last question: Here’s what I wrote down on a 3″ x 5″ card on 7 July 2005, on a night when the writing group my friend Nat Bennett and I were in at the time met at Dempsey’s Tavern:


For writing a story in first person past tense, using the retrospective voice, but aren’t sure where or when the narrator is writing from. Nat says he always borrows the situation from Nabokov’s Pale Fire, where Kinbote is shacked up in a motel across the street from an amusement park, hiding from everyone, hiding from the world.

In other words, it’s a valuable trick, if you’re working on something new, to be able to picture the precise circumstances of your narrator (whether you ever let the reader know what they are or not)—and if you can’t quite picture them yet, use Charles Kinbote’s circumstances as your backup.

That same night, Nat also—while critiquing one of his own stories, I think?—said, “Where’s this guy’s Daisy?”

A Daisy, a Kinbote’s motel—in the same bag of tricks as Hitchcock’s MacGuffin? (Or is the device of a Daisy a version of a MacGuffin? A private action-driving longing—a Rosebud?)

Nat’s a really smart writer; he ought to be more famous, I think.

So, the diagram: in my lecture notes, I wrote that this was “borrowed from Chuck Wachtel and slightly modified.” I took craft from Chuck at NYU (the class that Emily will also be teaching next year—to NYU’s MFA students, I mean).

This is based on a drawing of Chuck’s on page 87 of his craft class course packet—at least, the course packet we had in the spring semester of 2005. (I know from the notes I took in class, which include a drawing of mine that is a kind of intermediary step between Chuck’s drawing and my PowerPoint diagram, that we talked about this on 22 February 2005. I love my notes; my notes make me think two things: 1) Hooray analog! and 2) Who but a mean-spirited ignoramus, possibly hell-bent on destroying the fabric of democracy, would ever deny the value of the teaching of creative writing?)

Underneath Chuck’s drawing on page 87 of the packet, I wrote:

Wicki-Wachi Gardens, Florida, underwater mermaid dance show, garden hose breathing tube analogy.

I don’t entirely remember what that means. I think Chuck was telling us about a show he saw once in which women performed underwater in mermaid costumes, for an audience that watched them through an enourmous pane of glass, like a glass fourth wall, like a human aquarium; the mermaids stayed underwater by breathing through a garden hose dropped from the surface down to where they were, at the bottom of the aquarium. Did Chuck mean that the writer is similarly tethered to the action of the story through the metaphorical garden hose of his or her narrative voice?

(Google corrects my spelling: it’s actually Weeki Wachee Springs, the City of Live Mermaids. And it still exists. Whoa.)

Back to the diagram: it’s a simple (and goofy, in my rendering) way of visualizing how you get from the action of a story to the reading of a story. There are a lot of steps, really, from Gatsby’s actions to Nick’s observation of them to Nick’s voice describing those actions in Fitzgerald’s words to the formation of images picturing those actions in the head of you, the reader.

Would this be useful to a student? I don’t know.

But I like looking at it.

It reminds me that I really, really hope my career lands me back in the classroom someday.