by Jean Roberta
I often explain narrative point-of-view to bewildered first-year university students. Too many of them seem to think that a story is written in “first-person” if one major character has all the best lines.
I use the Dr. Seuss story, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” as an example of first-person storytelling. Did “Dr. Seuss” (himself a persona based on a pen name) actually see all the things he describes? Very unlikely, but this fantasy never loses its breathless air of immediacy because the narrator seems to be speaking directly to us, the reader.
Looking over my own stories to find a general pattern of viewpoints, I’ve realized that I am often confused myself, especially while a story is gelling in my mind. Whose story is it? Would it be told better by a major character who is directly involved in the action, or by a more objective (or more biased) observer?
The stories I’ve especially enjoyed writing have been told by an “I” who is clearly not me, or not the me who is visible from the outside (short, white, female, past menopause, Canadian). I like to inhabit other personalities partly because I secretly think of myself as a failed actor (have performed in a few plays, but never had anything resembling a career on the stage) and writing in first-person is another way to perform. (“Is this a dagger that I see before me? Out, out, damned spot!”)
Part of the pleasure of inhabiting a different personality has to do with preventing malicious gossip, or thwarting the gossip-mongers. Those who would like to find some dirt on the outwardly-visible me are likely to be frustrated when they learn that the “I” in a particular story is male, supernatural, or living in a past century.
Here is the beginning of a fairly lightweight erotic story (“Focal Point”) that I wrote from the viewpoint of a young man. I live in a country where “Jean” can be seen as a masculine name, so I kept it for my narrator.
“'We have a prop for you today, Johnny,' purred the avant-garde lesbian-feminist art instructor I thought of as Ms. Muff. I hated the way she used the royal 'we,' and I hated her version of my French-Canadian name, Jean.
There’s something about being naked in a roomful of fully-dressed people that makes it hard for me to assert myself. In fact, trying not to get hard usually took up most of my energy. I stood quietly, forcing my arms to stay at my sides, while Ms. Muff strutted around me in her black jeans, tossing her sun-bleached hair and looking amused. She probably fantasized about cutting me up and serving choice bits as hors d’oeuvres at the next lesbian brunch or gallery opening."
This story (with m/m sex) was based on my own experience as a model in university art classes, but the narrator’s perception of women as having cruel power over vulnerable men was a stretch for me. Being naked in public is definitely a vulnerable position for anyone to be in, but as a male friend pointed out to me at the time, I was never likely to have a visible erection. And as I pointed out to myself, writing this story might possibly expose me to ridicule, but not for being a gay man.
I wrote another m/m story (a fairly rare experiment for me) from a limited third-person viewpoint. The central character is a journalist, and I thought he would probably tell his own story in third-person, as though it were a news article. He is also a widower, and I thought his habitual use of third-person narration would be his way of keeping a grip, not giving in to his grief.
"The Pacific is playful and moody near Isla Negra, the final resting-place of the unofficial national poet of Chile and his faithful companera. Stan Boisvert waded ankle-deep into the surging wavelets, his pants rolled up high enough to show the plentiful, dark leg-hair that could be ruffled by a strong breeze.
It was January, full summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Nonetheless, the water was cold enough to raise goose-bumps on exposed skin. The breezes--¬some warmer and some cooler--helped. Stan welcomed the feeling of air and water on his body. He came to the beach to be reminded he was alive.
As a boy in Canada, he had waded into the grey water of Lake Ontario, never quite believing that it was a lake surrounded by solid land and not an ocean that could carry a curious traveler to other continents. The vastness, the restlessness and the dazzling effects of sunlight on water had all been the same then as now. Presumably, though, Stan knew more about the world now than he had as a child, not only in a geographical sense.
He was attracted to this beach because it had looked deserted. In some unacknowledged sense, he had hoped that if his own lost companera were to contact him, it would be here where the ocean surges onto the land like a horde of spirits persistently trying to touch the living. Grief had given him an irrational conviction that she must still exist in some form, and that she had left him to return to her home."
Those who know me generally know that when I tell a story from the viewpoint of a woman who adores a particular man (a hunk! a god!), this is another big stretch for me. The story I wrote for the forthcoming Mammoth Book of Uniform Erotica (edited by Barbara Cardy, who accepted my story) is basically a romance. I wanted to show a particular uniform from the viewpoint of the woman who loves to see her man wearing it.
“'Door-to-door delivery will continue until the end of the calendar year, but plans are in place to phase it out. The Corporation can no longer justify the expense of this service, especially in rural areas.' The television newscaster looked like a mannequin in a display window, and she read her lines without a trace of feeling. I wanted to shoot the messenger.
I could hardly imagine not seeing Bernard, my favourite mail carrier, striding up my front walk every weekday morning at eleven o’clock precisely. In winter, he wore his regulation black parka and the black balaclava that covered his whole face except for his sky- blue eyes. In summer, he wore his summer uniform: a short-sleeved khaki shirt and shorts that revealed his muscular, sun-tanned legs. In all seasons, he proudly wore the symbol of the Canada Post Corporation, a red chevron like an arrow speeding toward its target. Just seeing it made my heart beat faster."
Actually, I was only being somewhat facetious here. For years, I have honestly admired the men and women who brave the Canadian climate (which varies from region to region, but is generally unfriendly everywhere except the West Coast) to ensure that letters and parcels get delivered right to our mailboxes. And the federal government has threatened to phase out this service, so that at some point in the future, door-to-door mail delivery here will probably seem as quaint as the Pony Express.
I vaguely remember most of my lesbian stories as clear, simple, first-person, horse’s-mouth narratives, but a brief survey of them shows me that the dreaded head-hopping occurs in some of them. In this story, “A Bushy Tale,” I wanted to show an encounter from the viewpoints of both women. While writing, I think I was completely oblivious of the pitfalls of this approach.
"Louanne and Thomasina (who could stand being called Tommy but not Tommy-girl)were getting acquainted over leisurely cups of coffee on the patio of Café Mocha. They had been introduced by their mutual friend Mick, a dyke d.j. who enjoyed watching women on a crowded dance floor, and occasionally tried to match them up. The spring weather was bright and breezy, coaxing all the trees and plants in the neighborhood to show their first trusting leaves.
'Do you like your job?' Louanne asked Tommy, whose arm muscles impressed her. Louanne imagined being wrestled to the floor, and it made her blush. She had been told about Tommy’s sexual tastes, but decided to stick to safe topics.
'Oh, yes,' Tommy smiled. She was noticing the way sunlight brought out the reddish-gold highlights in the wood-brown hair that brushed Louanne’s shoulders. Tommy wanted to stroke it, gather it up in one hand, and pull it to bring Louanne’s mouth closer to hers. She decided to focus on the conversation.
'I work for the Humane Society, you know. When we get complaints about animal abuse, I go check them out. If I find that, uh, the animals shows signs of abuse, I bring them back to the shelter and we take care of them. I like watching them recover.'
Louanne beamed, and Tommy gave her an answering smile. 'I know what you mean,' Louanne assured her, even though she seriously doubted whether anyone really knew what anyone else meant. 'I’ve been a volunteer counsellor on the sexual assault and abuse line for a few years. Dealing with women who’ve been abused is hard, but it’s good to see them getting their lives back, little by little.'"
Too true that few people know what anyone else means. Sometimes I’m not even sure what I mean. I wanted to tap into the real-life comedy of two new acquaintances exchanging polite chatter while their parallel streams of consciousness run below their words like a bass line below the melody. It was fun to write. I just hope it isn’t too confusing to read. (It was published in Best Lesbian Erotica 2004.)
Several years ago, while randomly googling my pen name, I discovered “A Bushy Tale” on the website of a man who called himself Marcel Lee, and described himself as a 31-year-old heterosexual African-American man in Detroit, Michigan. WTF? I thought. This story was part of his on-line erotic library, pirated from various sources, and available for anyone to read. Marcel seemed to think he was providing a public service by making this material available to others. It was his way of attracting a following. It certainly attracted me.
I described this situation in the “Writers” list of the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, and got predictable advice. Several list-members advised me to threaten Marcel with drastic legal action if he didn’t remove my story at once. How dare he toy with my intellectual property?
I couldn’t work up a full head of steam over the theft of my story. I had already been paid for its publication in Best Lesbian Erotica. I wasn’t going to earn more money for it unless I submitted it elsewhere, which I could still do. Meanwhile, a whole new audience (probably not the usual readers of BLE) were seeing my work and my pen name. I decided to leave Marcel in peace.
Someday I might write a story from the viewpoint of a young straight man from Detroit who pirates lesbian erotica. Ha.