Thoughts: Playing with Person

Baby face.JPG

I have a slow day today, so I am spending a lot of it on kickstarting some writing projects I’ve wanted to play with for some time.

One was a detective novel I began a few months ago. I am a few chapters into it now and I began to wonder what it would be like if I changed the voice from third person to first person, telling the story from the view of one of the two kind-of private detectives. This is a time-honored way of doing detective stories, going back as far as dear Sherlock Holmes and one of my favorites, the Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout.

I am a sucker for the old film noir novels of the forties and fifties, from Raymond Chandler to the Dick Powell radio stories of Richard Diamond. Could I do something like that I wondered? Would it be more fun to write? Would it be a better story?

So I tried it this morning, converting the first chapter from third to first person. It was fun, I have to tell you. Is it better as a story? I haven’t decided. I may do another chapter or two and let it sit a while.

I like playing with person. I do it a lot in my poems, some of which fall in all three persons, first, second and third. I don’t know why some voices work better in some poems than others.

I spent much or my writing life in the third person. Poems and fiction were always in third person.  Then, maybe twenty years ago, I wrote a poem called “Greubin’s First Squirrel”. I actually write several poems about Gruebin, which explored how a regular kid, a regular person, became a heartless Nazi. I wrote “Greubin’s First Squirrel” in the second person: “you”.

And I was stunned at the result. The poems were bought immediately and I had a little flurry of poetry fame. More importantly, I realized person mattered.

I don’t always know when I am writing, what’s the best person to use. I tinker. I try stuff. I listen to what I write. It’s an odd kind of editing that cares less for spelling than the power of the right voice.

Mostly, I don’t like editing. I write fast and (mostly) well. A lot of my first drafts are perfectly good. My copywriting clients often tell me how good and I find myself almost embarrassed at how quickly I can write things and how little I edit.

It’s not that I don’t understand the value of editing. I do. And I do it when I think I need to. I just don’t like it. Details bore me. Nitpicking bores me, even when I understand the value.

But editing the voice, the person? That’s fun. That’s playtime. It’s like fingerpainting with words. Make it one way, stick your fingers in the wet paint and make it another way. Repeat. Sooner or later you find something good, but in the meanwhile, I’ve had fun with it.

So I had fun today. We’ll see if it sticks, if I let the fingerpainting of this version dry or mess with it again later on.

It’s nice when writing is fun. I often call it therapy and it is. Especially the poetry. But it has not lost the fun part either. You’d never know it from my verse, but my major influences in writing are Tennyson, e. e. cummings, Emily Dickenson, and Dr. Seuss. You don’t get much Suess in my poetry, but the fun part is still there as I play and experiment.

Poets and artists often get a bad rap for being morose, depressed, miserable people full of struggles and angst. And yes, some of my own verse would bear that out a bit. But we all aren’t Sylvia Plath. There is pleasure in writing, and at times fun. We enjoy doing art and often there is way more play in it, even the dark stuff, than people realize.

And when I have extra time, like today? I have fun. Way too much fun, playing with persons like a kid changing paper doll clothes, finger painted of course.

Be well. Travel wisely. Don’t forget to have fun.

Tom

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