The Perils of Point-of-View in Writing Biographies

On this blog, I’ve dedicated a lot of energy to dissecting bits of what I consider to be solid writing, in posts where I’ve highlighted the literary techniques contained within a passage or a poem and argued that they are what make the piece a success. But there’s an important caveat to that sort of discussion that I don’t think I’ve addressed before: there are no intrinsically good techniques, only techniques that are good in some context. If this blog is to be at all useful in exploring writing, I believe it needs to acknowledge that, sometimes, writing can be sterling in the abstract but flawed in a given situation.

To that end, I’d like to look at a passage from the first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, a book which in general is written in a perfectly fine if utilitarian manner, but at one dramatic moment adopts a far more lyrical prose style. The moment in question comes after Eleanor confronts her husband Franklin about his affair with her former secretary, Lucy Mercer, and offers him a divorce. It’s one the emotional low points in Eleanor’s life, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Cook would choose this part of her subject’s narrative to indulge in some rhetorical flair:

He made promises, provided explanations. This “golden boy,” this vibrant “apollo” who charmed everyone he met, now directed all his influence and charm toward his wife. He would never see Lucy Mercer again. Did he apologize? Did he explain? Had he been engaged in a long-overdue emotional rebellion—against being a mama’s boy who always did the right and proper thing; who condemned all departures from the proprieties of his class and culture; who had mocked his half-brother’s son’s love for a socially unacceptable woman and blamed Taddie for his father’s death; who at the young age of twenty-three had taken on the responsibilities of a wife and home? Well, he had erred. Washington was so full of temptations; he had been trying out his new power, his new independence, for the first time in his life. It was a flamboyant, fatuous time. And it was over. He cared about his wife; he loved her. He was sorry he had hurt her. There was so much at stake—so much to do, and to do together. (p. 231)

If you put this passage in a bottle, if you consider it in isolation, it’s rather impressive. In fact, you could probably give this paragraph to an AP Language and Composition class and have the students tear it apart as an exercise. The aim of the passage is to place the reader in FDR’s mind as realizes that his affair has been exposed, and every device that Cook uses serves that goal. There’s the mixture of short paratactic questions (“Did he apologize? Did he explain?”) with looping hypotactic ones (“Had he been engaged…”), both of which highlight Franklin’s excited mental state. The use of anaphora (“who had always…who condemned…who had mocked…who…had taken…”) calls to mind the great persuasive speeches of history, only here it’s directed inward, as though FDR wishes to convince himself of his good nature. Even the insertion of a discourse marker (“Well, he had erred”) is indicative of a mind at work. These devices are not especially advanced or obscure, but there are undeniably effective at achieving Cook’s end here.

But that only raises the question: is that an end worth achieving?

Let’s talk about point-of-view for a bit. We’re perhaps more accustomed to thinking about point-of-view in fiction. Fiction writers, after all, have a great deal of freedom in choosing a POV for their stories. They can use an omniscient narrator, moving from one character’s perspective to another’s, or even describing events outside of anyone’s perspective. They can adopt a quasi-objective, reportorial stance, as in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Or they can restrict themselves to a single character’s POV, whether in first person or a limited third person. As long as the writer is consistent with regards to POV, they have almost limitless options.

The reason that fiction writers have such freedom is that fictional worlds are entirely of their own creation. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for example, the narrator can spend one chapter in Dorothea’s mind, then one in Lydgate’s, then one in Mr. Casaubon’s, and so on, without fear of being inaccurate to the facts of the narrative, because there are no narrative facts as such. The whole story exists as it does solely because George Eliot wrote it that way. But imagine if Middlemarch were literally, as the subtitle has it, a study of provincial life? Suddenly the narrator’s movement from one person’s mind to the next would seem a bit more suspect. The reader would be compelled to ask, “How does she know any of this?”

In Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin notes that improper shifts in point-of-view are the problem that she encounters most often in unpublished (and even published) writing. That fact on its own did not surprise me when I first read Steering the Craft a few years ago, as it lined up with my own experience in writing workshops. What did surprise me was that Le Guin had found that the problem extended beyond novels and short stories:

It’s a problem even in nonfiction, when the author starts telling the reader what Aunt Jane was thinking and why Uncle Fred swallowed the grommet. A memoirist doesn’t have the right to do this without clearly indicating that Aunt Jane’s thoughts and Uncle Fred’s motives aren’t known facts but the author’s guesswork, opinion, or interpretation. Memoirists can’t be omniscient, even for a moment. (p. 70)

Le Guin frames this defective handling of POV in essentially moral terms: “A memoirist doesn’t have the right to do this.” If a fiction writer mishandles POV, the result is simply a weaker, more confusing story. If a nonfiction writer mishandles POV, the result may be straight-up dishonesty. “To use limited third person in factual narrative,” Le Guin goes on to say, “is to trespass, pretending you know what a real person thought and felt” (p. 71).

Cook isn’t writing a memoir, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that she has the same responsibilities that Le Guin assigns to memoirists. In fact, in her case those responsibilities may be even more pressing. When we read a memoir, we know that we’re getting a personal, edited account of real-life events, that we’re getting only one perspective on the complications of life. But when we read a biography, we expect the author to maintain objectivity, to follow where the facts lead and not to step beyond them.

Reread that passage from the Eleanor Roosevelt biography in this light, and you’ll start to see places where Cook strains against the limits of what can be known about FDR’s mental state after Eleanor’s offer of divorce. The rhetorical questions, which before sounded like an attempt to imagine FDR’s thought process, now sound like a way of sneaking in unfounded speculations without fully committing to them. They suggest that FDR may “have been engaged in a long-overdue emotional rebellion” without providing concrete evidence to support that claim; indeed, Cook follows it up with just further suppositions. In this brief digression into FDR’s mind, Cook has breached the biographer’s contract with the reader.

Yet, in all honesty, I can’t condemn Cook wholeheartedly for this trespass. See, FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer is a momentous event in Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, as any discovery of infidelity would be, but it’s an event lacking much in the way of documentation. Cook says that Eleanor “wrote of that time only obliquely, and in code” (p. 232). References to the affair in her correspondence are scant to say the least, and her memoir devotes just a passing thought to the moment of discovery described above. (Even memoirs with consistent POVs, it is worth remembering, are not 100% factual accounts, either.)

This leaves Cook in a quandary regarding the Lucy Mercer affair. She can either stick to what the documentary record and interviews with Eleanor’s surviving acquaintances reveal, and say less than what the affair would appear to deserve; or she can speculate beyond what those limited sources have to say, sacrificing strict accuracy in the hopes of obtaining a perhaps unobtainable truth. This is not a choice that I find enviable, but is the choice that a writer in Cook’s position must make. I think either decision could be justified, but one must accept the consequences in either case.


But what do you think? Are there any cases you can think of where a biography has benefited from the sort of POV shift we talked about here? Is it ethical for a biographer to make such a shift in the first place? Let me know in the comments!

If you’re in the mood for something more thought on biography, here’s a piece I wrote last month about Frank Brady’s biography of Bobby Fischer, which looks into the duties we owe to abjectly awful people. Or, if you’re looking for more on point-of-view, here’s a post on Luisa Valenzuela’s “The Sin of the Apple,” a story that can teach us how to write from the POV of inanimate objects.

And, as always, thanks for reading!

“Brave New World,” “Hiroshima,” and the Art of the Section Break

In his reference book A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, Noah Lukeman calls the section break “the most subjective of punctuation marks,” noting that “there is not even a consensus on how to indicate it” (p. 160). Some books use a blank space between paragraphs to mark a section break, while others use a dingbat for the same purpose. The section break is such a nebulous punctuation mark, in fact, that I hadn’t even considered it as such until reading Lukeman’s book.

Now, even if you would rather think of section breaks as structural devices rather than punctuation, I think you can agree that their usage is somewhat interesting.

As with any break in the text of a book (paragraph, chapter, etc.), the section break is primarily used to indicate a transition, whether it’s in terms of location, time, or point of view. It’s a way of bridging the gap between two passages which are conceptually close (they are, after all, in the same chapter), but are disconnected enough that moving directly from one to the other would seem jarring. It can also be used to give the reader an extended moment to pause, to reflect on what they’ve just read.

In his discussion of the section break, Lukeman advises writers to practice moderation in using it. He gives two main reasons for this. First, he says that the section break’s brief pause can literally take the reader out of the book:

When considering whether to use a section break, the first thing you must realize is that every time you use one, you give the reader a chance to put your book down. The section break carries nearly the power of a chapter break and also has nearly the visual appeal of one: it creates a nice, too-convenient place for a reader to rest. So first ask yourself if you truly need it. Can the chapter live without it? (p. 167)

Second, he argues that using too many section breaks in a chapter can hamper the reader’s ability to parse the text:

Sometimes one encounters a work where there are four, five, or more section breaks per chapter, and the effect is immediate. It lends the chapter a choppy feel, as if it’s been carved into small parts. As a rule of thumb, there should rarely be more than one or two section breaks per chapter. There is a certain satisfaction for the reader in absorbing himself in fifteen or twenty pages at once; multiple section breaks detract from that…It also makes them work harder, as they’ll have to exert the mental energy of going through multiple beginnings and endings, going through major transitions (whether of time, setting, or viewpoint) several times in a single chapter. (p. 174)

I think it’s fair to say that Lukeman’s advice holds true in most contexts. Most pieces of writing don’t require more than handful of section breaks, and as Brandon Taylor recently observed, writers often use section breaks to “conclude” passages they haven’t fully thought through yet. (Case in point: my “X Fragments on Y” posts, with the Roman numerals in place of dingbats.)

Yet wherever there’s sound advice, there’s also room to ignore it with abandon, and such experiments often have artistically interesting results.

*          *          *

The first place I remember seeing section breaks used imaginatively was in Chapter 3 of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). If Lukeman would find four section breaks in a chapter suspicious, then he would have Huxley arrested on the spot for what he does there. In my edition of the book, Chapter 3 is 27 pages long, and by my count contains 119 section breaks; that’s an average of more than four such breaks per page. What’s more, the sections are of widely variable length. While the first fragment of text goes on for about four pages, the sections grow progressively shorter, even as short as one line. The result is the print equivalent of a fast-cutting, action movie montage.

At least, it is on a formal level. The content is not nearly so exciting. The bulk of the chapter consists of three conversations that Huxley “intercuts” for his montage: Mustapha Mond’s history lecture, which he delivers to a group of confused students; Lenina’s dressing room chat with her friend Fanny, which centers on their sex lives; and a conversation about Lenina which Bernard Marx, our alleged protagonist, overhears and internally condemns. At no point do these threads actually intersect in the chapter; they merely occur simultaneously and in very rough proximity.

If you’ve ever listened to a radio frequency while at the edge of two station’s ranges, you’ll recognize the feeling of reading this chapter: picking up pieces of different discussions, but in such a way that it’s difficult to piece together a coherent through-line for them. At a certain point, you lose track of which words are coming from which station, and all that noise becomes one song. Such is the case for Chapter 3. If you pay attention to context clues, it’s possible to assign every section to its proper scene, but it’s easier—tempting, even—to just indulge in the implied poetry of all that rapid cutting.

But that very temptation, to just bathe in the pleasures of the rhythm without regard to meaning—that seems to be on Huxley’s mind here.

The previous chapter of Brave New World, Chapter 2, introduces a concept called “hypnopædia,” that is, sleep-teaching. While they are sleeping, children in the conditioning centres “listen” to recordings of lectures and pithy sayings that espouse the values of this society. The constant repetition, heard subconsciously, fundamentally shapes the mind of every person to guarantee their contentment with the status quo. As the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning tells his students, hypnopædia continues until

“…at last the child’s mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child’s mind. And not the child’s mind only. The adult’s mind too—all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides—made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions…Suggestions of the State.” (pp. 28-29, emphasis original)

Chapter 3, however, is where the reader first sees the effects of hypnopædia outside the context of the conditioning process, with two characters who flout the norms of society. The first is Lenina, who, contrary to societal expectations of promiscuity, has been exclusively going out with the same coworker for the past four months. Fanny cajoles her into seeing someone else, but Lenina seems passively stubborn until Fanny whips out a hypnopædic proverb: “After all, every one belongs to every one else” (p. 43). Confronted with the inculcated wisdom, Lenina finally relents.

The second is Bernard, the one eternally glum man in London and the target of much ridicule and rumor. His coworkers mock him with exhortations to simply drug his way to happiness, knowing he’ll scoff at their suggestions. “One cubic centimetre is worth ten gloomy sentiments,” one person tells him. “And do remember that a gramme is better than a damn.” (pp. 54-55). Bernard predictably gets riled up, and they leave with a good laugh.

As it happens, Bernard specializes in hypnopædia, and so one might assume that he resists obeying conditioning because he knows how it works. (“Sixty-two thousand four hundred repetitions make one truth. Idiots!” [p. 47]) But as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Bernard doesn’t actually reject the values of his world; he’s simply unhappy because he doesn’t feel like he’s benefiting from them. Once he’s accepted into the higher echelons of society, his rebellious attitude evaporates. Hypnopædia, as it turns out, is hard to escape—which is why, when the verbal montage really kicks into gear, Huxley starts interpolating some of the hypnopædia recordings into the mix.

To give you a taste of what this montage feels like, have a look at page 49:

BNW p49

The rhythm of the short sections becomes so incessant that it takes on the air of a chant, of an indoctrination. It’s an effect I’m not sure could be achieved without heavy use of the section break.

However, Chapter 3 is an outlier in the novel. Nowhere else does Huxley deploy the section break with anywhere near this frequency, and as such the whole chapter can feel like an experiment, even a gimmick. (Huxley’s not even consistent with how he breaks sections in the novel: most chapters just use line-spacing, but Chapters 4-6 split chapters into explicitly labelled parts.) For a more consistent demonstration of the power of section breaks, we’ll need to look elsewhere.

*          *          *

I recently finished John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946), a journalistic account how six people lived through the atomic bombing of the Japanese city on August 6, 1945, and its immediate aftermath, with an extended epilogue added to the 1985 re-printing that catches up on the subjects’ post-bombing lives. As a work of journalism, the fact that Hiroshima would feature more section breaks than is standard is not all that surprising; articles tend to include them at much briefer intervals than novels do. Indeed, Hiroshima was originally supposed to be printed as a series of four articles in The New Yorker before the editors decided to dedicate an entire issue to the work and printed it all at once. To a certain extent, it simply bears the marks of its medium.

However, I would still say Hersey uses the section break more often that Lukeman would ever deem strictly necessary. For example, the third chapter, “Details Are Being Investigated,” has 27 section breaks over the span of 24 pages. That’s not quite a Chapter 3 of Brave New World clip, but it still averages out to more than one per page. And unlike Huxley, Hersey keeps up with this rough pace for the entire length of the book. Why does he do that?

Part of the reason is practical. As in the third chapter of Brave New WorldHiroshima follows multiple groups of people through events that are happening simultaneously. The section breaks quickly tell the reader that the narrative is moving from one part of the city to another, shifting perspectives among its central figures. That extra space between paragraphs gives the reader’s mind a chance to recalibrate, to file one person’s experiences away for the time being and give their full attention the next part of the story.

The first chapter, “A Noiseless Flash,” is methodical in how it uses its section breaks. The first section lists off what each of the survivors the book follows was doing at the moment before the A-bomb exploded, functioning as a dramatis personae. After the first section break, Hersey gives a more detailed account of one of those person’s actions, the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto’s. After another section break, Hersey briefly turns back the clock and does the same for the second survivor, Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, and so on for each figure. Everyone’s lives, in Hersey’s telling, are allowed to play out in parallel.

At least, they are at first, and this is where Hersey’s book demonstrates the real versatility of the section break. As the book progresses, and the various survivors start to cross paths and interact with each other, the strictly-divided sections give way to something more patchwork, more like verbal montage. Granted, the sections are not nearly as short as in Huxley’s case, but the narrative of the bombing’s aftermath does move quickly from setpiece to setpiece.

The subtle change in how the section break is applied underscores the dramatic change in how the central characters experience the world. Before the atomic bomb drops, there is something resembling order in Hiroshima. Yes, the city is struggling through the waning days of the war, with air raid sirens constantly warning of impending destruction. But in a way, everyone involved has adjusted to that status quo; their daily rhythms are unorthodox, but they’re still present. The atomic bomb, however, obliterates them. Confusion reigns over the city, so much so that one could conceivably turn Hersey’s journalism into a mystery story: What on earth just happened?

Hersey’s section breaks resemble montage in another sense: the juxtaposition of one section with another allows for commentary. We see this in Huxley, of course, what with those hypnopædic proverbs, but Hersey’s usage, though less frequent, is even more blunt. In “The Aftermath,” the epilogue written forty years later, Hersey writes about Rev. Tanimoto’s efforts as a peace activist, and inserts into that narrative brief snippets of world affairs, none of which are promising. Consider the following sequence from page 139, after President Harry Truman refuses to acknowledge a petition from the peace-oriented United World Federalists:

Hiroshima p139

Hersey does this repeatedly in the home stretch: Rev. Tanimoto’s peace advocacy, confronted with incessant nuclear proliferation. Blunt? Yes. But a perfect example of how a section break is not just functional, but meaningful.

Finally, Hersey’s use of section breaks actually makes me question one of the premises of Lukeman’s discussion: that something has gone wrong if the reader feels like putting the book down mid-chapter. Perhaps an author might think that there are situations where doing so is perfectly fine.

The subject matter of Hiroshima is, to put it mildly, heavy.  It’s the sort of book that inspires one to spend some time staring blankly at a wall, reflecting on the fallen state of humanity. One moment in particular got to me: a short section, which I shall quote in full, in which Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest, attempts to comfort a girl rescued from a river following the bombing.

The night was hot, and it seemed even hotter because of the fires against the sky, but the younger of the two girls Mr. Tanimoto and the priests had rescued complained to Father Kleinsorge that she was cold. He covered her with his jacket. She and her older sister had been in the salt water of the river for a couple of hours before being rescued. The younger one had huge, raw flash burns on her body; the salt water must have been excruciatingly painful to her. She began to shiver heavily, and again said it was cold. Father Kleinsorge borrowed a blanket from someone nearby and wrapped her up, but she shook more and more, and said again, “I am so cold,” and then she suddenly stopped shivering and was dead. (p. 45)

Readers may well find themselves overwhelmed with anger or despair or some other powerful emotion here. The section break serves as a humane exit point. “Do you need some time to process what you just read?” this use of the section break asks. “Well, here’s a fine spot to leave off. Come back when you’re ready.”

*          *          *

What do you think? Are there other books that you think use section breaks in creative or unique ways? Are there other punctuation marks or literary techniques that you think deserve more scrutiny? Share your thoughts down in the comment section.

If you want more examples of how to break the rules of writing productively, check out this older piece of mine: “‘The Sin of the Apple’: Writing from the POV of an Object”

And, as always, thank you for reading!

Oh, Where Have You Been: A Chain of Influence from “Lord Randall” to Iron & Wine

For this post, we’re going to look at three songs which I think share a pretty direct lineage. I encourage you to give all three tracks a listen if you don’t know them already. (And if you do know them, give ’em another listen anyway. They’re all good songs!) Some of the similarities and differences will likely be apparent even going in cold, while others I think become clearer after some discussion.

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s start our deep dive.

I. “For it’s now that I’m dying…”

The first song is the early-modern English folk ballad “Lord Randall.” As with basically all folk ballads passed down through the oral tradition, there are many versions of the song that you can find. I’ve gone with Jean Ritchie’s recording because I’m fond of her voice, but what I’m about to say applies to pretty much any version of the song that you might come across.

“Lord Randall” tells the woeful tale of its title character. Our young man has been in “the wild wood” with his true love, who made him “eels boiled in broth” for dinner. This dinner appears to have had an ominous effect, because his bloodhounds “swelled and they died,” and upon returning home his mother deduces that he’s been poisoned. In his final breaths, Lord Randall wills his possessions to his parents, while to his true love: “I’ll leave her hellfire,” for she is the killer. It’s an old-fashioned murder ballad, and one that turns on a mystery to boot.

To get a good handle on the song’s form, let’s take a look at the first stanza.

“Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall my son?
Oh, where have you been, my handsome young man?”
“I’ve been to the wild wood. Mother, make my bed soon,
For I’m weary with hunting, and I fain would lie down.”

On a skeletal level, “Lord Randall” uses a loose variation of long meter, where each line of the quatrain has four strong stresses (“Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall my son?”) I say “loose,” because the third and fourth lines of each stanza arguably have five stresses each, but as Ritchie sings them the middle-most accents (“Mother” and “and,” respectively) don’t get the same emphasis as the others. Also of note: “Lord Randall” doesn’t rhyme, but rather uses consonance to link the ends of each line sonically. The constantly changing vowels may sound awkward to modern ears, but I’d argue that the lack of perfect rhymes fits the tragic subject matter.

One might also note that “Lord Randall” is dramatic in nature, by which I mean it presents itself as a dialogue between two characters. Each stanza begins with Lord Randall’s mother asking a question about her son’s recent journey, and ends with Lord Randall’s response and a plea that he’s tired and “fain would lie down.” In this song, much of the conflict is driven by an imbalance of information: the mother is in the dark, and her son is reluctant to tell her the whole truth.

A final noteworthy aspect about the song’s structure is its heavy use of refrains. The second halves of both of the mother’s lines are repeated in each stanza (“Lord Randall my son,” “my handsome young man”), as is most of the son’s dialogue with some variations. This heavy repetition makes the song’s dialogue highly stylized, if not ritualistic, but it also gives the song’s narrative an interesting progression. Even though the mystery continues to unfold in the listener’s ear, it simultaneously keeps turning back to previously stated niceties. The story is both linear and cyclical.

In terms of the narrative, what I find most compelling about “Lord Randall” is the gradual change in the title character’s attitude from start to finish. It’s easy to read the son’s responses to the mother’s questions as attempts to end the conversation. “Let’s stop talking,” he seems to say, “I want to go to bed.” Once the fact of his dying comes out, though, he stops trying to shut down the dialogue. Instead, he starts speaking performatively, his words assigning goods and fates upon his relations. At the moment of his death, he finally takes action.

II. “I’m a-goin’ back out…”

Let’s jump now from early-modern England to the mid-20th-century United States. Released in 1963 as part of the seminal album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” occupies a unique position in Dylan’s early discography. The song is a mixture of Dylan’s three primary impulses from this period: the socially-conscious songs that made him famous, like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Masters of War”; the impressionistic, more personal lyrics he would start fully exploring on Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964); and, our main focus here, the canon of English-language folk songs that drew Dylan to the Greenwich Village scene in the first place.

As we did with “Lord Randall,” let’s take a look at the opening stanza to get a sense of the form:

“Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, where have you been, my darling young one?”
“I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains.
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways.
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests.
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans.
I’ve been ten thousands miles in the mouth of a graveyard.
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

The influence of “Lord Randall” should be apparent. Just like the earlier folk song, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is a piece of dramatic poetry, between an unidentified parent and their “blue-eyed son” who has been out in the world and experienced a great deal. The parent’s dialogue in particular calls to mind “Lord Randall,” with the repetition of “Oh, where have you been” and the affectionate terms for their child.

When the blue-eyed son starts speaking, though, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” starts to deviate from its model. While Dylan’s song maintains the loose, four beat rhythm, it does not bother with the strict consonance of its predecessor; in fact, it forgoes similar end sounds entirely. Instead, the song’s organizing principle is parallel syntax: each line begins with the same construction of “I’ve + [verb]” (except in the final stanza, which includes “Where…” statements as well). More so than popular song, the piece resembles free verse poetry in the vein of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass or Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno. It’s an unconventional choice, but that syntactic repetition still gives the piece a strong sense of musicality.

Further, as you’ve no doubt noticed, the son’s dialogue in each stanza is far more expansive and variable than it is in “Lord Randall.” In the folk song, the son always speaks two lines at a time, and if you factor out the refrains his responses are quite curt: “I’ve been to the wild wood,” “I dined with my true love,” etc. By contrast, the son in Dylan’s song is someone given to rambling. Not counting the closing refrain (more on which later), the son’s parts in each stanza range from 5 to 12 lines. The strictures of the folk song literally cannot contain this character’s speech.

And just what does the blue-eyed song have to say? Well, as is often the case with Dylan’s lyrics, there isn’t really a coherent literal scenario. This is no murder ballad, with a clear and causal narrative. Instead, the poem is organized around a series of associative leaps. It’s not a travelogue, but a creatively arranged list of impressions. Still, one can often see links between one image and the next. The first stanza, for instance, uses number as a jumping-off point (“twelve misty mountains,” “six crooked highways,” “seven sad forests”), while in the second stanza the “black branch with blood” precedes hammers “a-bleedin’.” As with much of Dylan’s work, the point is not to pin down one true meaning, but rather to play around with what has been suggested.

Still, the song does end on one clear note: the speaker has to keep telling their story. There is some bleak event on the horizon, that “hard rain” the speaker keeps returning to in the closing refrains. What that hard rain signifies is, of course, not stated, but whatever it is, it calls for a response. Thus, in that last stanza, the conversation shifts from the past to the future. “Oh, what’ll you do now?” the parent asks, and the son says he’s “a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’.” He will return to the world, as grim as it is, and deliver his message:

And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it.
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.

Like “Lord Randall,” “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” ends on an active note for the speaker, in this case, laying out a plan for the future. But the tones seem quite different. There’s no resignation present here, no reluctant acceptance of death. The son does not give into that hard rain, does not say he “fain would lie down.” Instead, it ends with optimism, so much so that the verse even indulges in some concluding slant rhyme couplets. Dylan has taken the raw materials of “Lord Randall,” and used them to tell a totally different story.

III. “I dreamt of that sound…”

The link between “Lord Randall” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is pretty : the latter directly lifts the structure of the former. The link between “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and our final song for today, on the other hand, is more speculative on my part. A quick Google search tells me that I’m not the first to make this connection, but it’s entirely possible that the similarities here unconscious rather than intentional.

With that disclaimer out of the way: let’s move up to January 2011. It’s my senior year of high school, and I’ve been conversant in Bob Dylan’s music for about two years. Sam Beam (better known as Iron & Wine), a singer I’ve just become familiar with, has released his fourth studio album, Kiss Each Other Clean. The lead-off track, “Walking Far from Home,” is an emotional power-bomb of song—one that still gives me chills—but I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve heard something like it before. A few listens later, and it hits me: it’s a rewriting of “Rain.”

Like Dylan’s song, “Walking Far from Home” strings together an associative list of images detailing a journey out in the world, with heavy use of parallel syntax to organize things. The speaker has seen everything from “children in a river” whose “lips were still dry” to “a bird fall[ing] like a hammer from the sky.” Once again, there’s no clear narrative here, but rather a series of impressions building to a climax.

Yet for all the similarities in content, there are some significant differences in structure. Take a look at the opening stanza here:

I was walking far from home,
Where the names were not burned along the wall.
Saw a building high as heaven
But the door was so small, door was so small.

First off, for the first time in our discussion we have perfect rhyme in a stanza, with “wall” and “small” helping to form an ABXB rhyme scheme. This already sets it apart from both “Lord Randall” (consonance) and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” (unrhymed). Second, while it’s possible to squeeze or expand lines into the four-beat pattern of its predecessors, that involves stressing words against the manner in which they’re sung. It’s a rhythm perhaps reminiscent of the ballad, but not committed to it. Third, the use of refrains only survives in the “echoing” final lines of each stanza, so the effect of cycling through a linear story has mostly been cut.

But the most significant structural change can only become obvious when the song is viewed in totality: there’s no dialogue. The speaker is the only one, well, speaking in the piece, and they’re not even implied to be addressing anyone in particular; there is a “you,” but the relationship between speaker and addressee is left vague. In that regard, Iron & Wine goes further than Dylan in making the “Lord Randall” narrative ambiguous. Not only is the content of their speech rendered impressionistic, as it is in Dylan’s song, but also the circumstances of their speech are left unstated.

I think this move, turning the dialogue of the previous two songs into an internal monologue, helps to explain the shift in how this song ends. The speaker in “Walking Far from Home” doesn’t conclude with a performative utterance like Lord Randall, nor does he resolve himself to a future course of action like the blue-eyed son. Instead, he uses the final verse to suggest that he’s come to a personal revelation because of his travels: he “saw a wet road form a circle / And it came like a call, came like a call / From the Lord.” What was once a movement toward external-facing action has now become the spark for inward-facing change.

IV. “Join me in song…”

To wrap this all up: why should we care about any of this? What difference does it make if we can trace contemporary indie music all the way back to early-modern folk songs? Isn’t this all just academic, all just trivia?

Well, partially. I did start writing this because I merely found it interesting. But I do think these songs offer us a lesson in how to use past works for inspiration. You’ve likely heard the expression, “Everything’s a remix,” that is, all art is a reworking of something that came before it. I think that’s true in the broad strokes, but it can miss the most important part of remixing: making what’s old into something new.

We can see that in these three songs. A 17th-century balladeer’s tale of murderous betrayal and motherly affection helped Bob Dylan to write a impressionistic call to action in politically stressful times. In turn, that song may have sparked Iron & Wine to write about an intimate form of salvation along a similar journey. These songs are, ultimately, in conversation with each other. But “in conversation with” does not mean “repeating.” There is little “remaking” here, and much more “making new.”

So, if you find yourself in a writing rut, you can look to a past work, figure out what makes it tick, and then write your own version of it. Just don’t be afraid to go unexpected places with it.

*          *          *

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this piece and would like to hear me yammer on some more about Bob Dylan, I wrote another blog post last year about the use of masculine and feminine rhyme in “Queen Jane Approximately” that you might find interesting.

Displacing Anxiety: Thoughts on Jill Bialosky’s “Driving Lesson”

Whenever I’m reading a poetry collection and I come across a piece that immediately captures my imagination, I like to flip to the acknowledgments page and see where that poem was originally published. Sometimes it’s out of idle curiosity, sometimes it’s because I’m looking for promising places to submit my own work, and sometimes it’s just to see if I can send someone a link to the poem without having to find a copy machine. Most often, the source is one of the usual suspects: Poetry, AGNI, The Kenyon Review. Every once in a while, though, the acknowledgements page gives an unexpected answer.

Such a surprise came to me while I was reading Jill Bialosky’s The Players (Knopf, 2015), as I learned that my favorite poem in the collection, “Driving Lesson,” was originally published in, of all places, The Chronicle of Higher Education, under the similar but more intimate title of “Teaching My Son to Drive.”

I’m not certain how the piece was originally published, but I was able to find the text of that earlier version of the poem on the Chronicle website. In what is an otherwise wholly digressive moment in her essay “Poetry and Suicide” (which, fair warning, discusses exactly that), Lisa Russ Spaar highlights “the ways in which Bialosky gives the antic world agency and displaces onto the careening trees, racing squirrels, and wild thrashers all of the mother’s anxiety about her son’s rite of passage.” On the whole, I find Spaar’s connection between the topic of suicide (which, in fairness, has touched Bialosky’s life greatly) and the argument of the poem to be rather tenuous. But that notion of displacing anxiety does, I think, fit nicely with how the poem handles ambiguous language.

Reading the poem, we understand that the speaker, a mother confronting the fact that her teenage son is growing more independent and that there is nothing she can do to prevent it, is projecting her dread onto the world around her. When she looks down at the speedometer and tells the reader, “I want him to slow down” (line 20), we understand that the speaker means two things simultaneously. First, on a literal level: she wants her son, who’s learning how to drive, to ease up on the gas. Second, on a metaphorical level: she wants her son, who’s approaching adulthood, to stop growing up.

That latter desire is, of course, impossible to satisfy; time simply doesn’t work like that. By using the external material of the speedometer as a point of reference, as a object onto which she can displace her anxiety, the speaker pulls off a nifty substitution: an impossible desire gives way to an attainable one. Her son cannot slow down the passage of time, but he can slow down the car. Perhaps, one may speculate, that would be good enough for the mother in these circumstances.

In terms of the how speaker displaces anxiety, the speedometer example is easy to pick out because the two elements of the process, the feeling and the object, come in quick succession. More interesting, however, are the places where those two elements are displaced from each other within the text of the poem. To read “Driving Lesson” involves coming across quasi-universal statements along the lines, “I want him to slow down,” without having their immediate context. There’s a consistent ambiguity at work here; the reader must keep asking themselves, “How am I supposed to take this?”

Let’s take two examples to get the idea. Consider the passage in which the speaker observes some horses as they drive past:

Horse farm on the side of the street
where we encounter a field
of young English riders with crops
preparing to mount the hurdles.
It won’t be easy. (9-13)

At first glance, this looks a lot like the speedometer example later on in the poem. After all, it certainly “won’t be easy” for the riders to leap over the hurdles. But, well, this poem isn’t called “Horse Riding Lesson.” It seems overly digressive for the speaker, who’s already using the driving lesson as a metaphor for her son growing up, to start likening her situation to the riders they happen upon. Furthermore, the riders’ situation actually seems dissimilar to the speaker’s, as their task is entirely physical, not emotional. While the horse imagery may suggest the line, “It won’t be easy,” through associative logic, what the image accomplishes is to displace the sentiment from the situation that occasioned it, namely, the driving lesson. Rendered more abstract, the thought becomes more bearable.

Let’s close things here by looking to the poem’s conclusion, which this time invokes the memory of a nature image rather than the image itself:

When I turn to look
I see the pensive boy in the backseat
strapped in his seat belt
watching two red squirrels run up a tree
and back down. (29-33)

It’s this finish that fully won me over to the poem. In terms of displacing anxiety, the speaker does so across so many dimensions. First, as in the previous examples, the speaker turns from the uncomfortable truth that her son is growing up to the youthful imagery of the frantic squirrels. But there’s so much more to this one, for the image is further displaced in terms of perspective (the son is the one watching the squirrels, not the speaker), time (he’s a “pensive boy,” not a teenager), and space (he’s in the backseat, not behind the wheel). The speaker has all but created a alternate reality of eternal motherhood within this moment.

Furthermore, the syntax of the final sentence manages to effectively displace the meaning of the poem. Look at that last line: “and back down.” The phrase “back down” can be taken two ways. In this context, the obvious way is as a parallel to “up a tree”: they run “up a tree / and back down [the tree].” They return to the start in the same way the speaker has mentally returned to an earlier state in her relationship with her son. But “back down” can also act as a verb phrase, meaning a kind of surrender—in this case, to the inevitable passage of time. That second meaning completes the speaker’s arc towards understanding and, as it happens, would fit the syntax of the sentence: if we add in the elided pronoun, then the phrase “and [I] back down” has a parallel structure with the preceding verb phrase, “I see.” “I see / … / and I back down.” The speaker understands the facts of life, however reluctant she may be to accept them.

As an exercise, read through Bialosky’s poem a few times and see if you can find any further moments of the sort of displacement that Spaar and I have discussed. Let me know your thoughts on the poem in the comments.

If you want to read more analyses of contemporary poetry, you might take a look at this post I wrote last year about the syntactical fireworks in Edward Mullany’s collection If I Falter at the Gallows.

The Power of Constraints: “In the Body of the Sturgeon” by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley

Recently while at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I saw a new film by the artistic duo of Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, called In the Body of the Sturgeon. Set on a doomed submarine stationed in the Pacific on the day President Harry S Truman announces the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, In the Body of the Sturgeon is by turns solemn and bizarre. Truman’s grave message and the ghosts of the sunken sailor share screen time with ecstatic odes to urination and pratfalls about drinking torpedo fuel. And yet it all fits together, thanks in no small part to the Kelleys’ visual aesthetic, which renders their human forms as disturbing, monochrome muppets.

But rather than talk about the filmmaking, I’d like to talk about the script. What drew my attention to the Kelleys’ film was not the lightbox pictures which served as previews, but rather the placard’s account of the writing process. The text of In the Body of the Sturgeon is draw entirely from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha. Every word in the script is either a word or a phrase repurposed from Longfellow’s work, and on top of that, the script maintains the original poem’s (in)famous use of trochaic tetrameter (i.e., eight syllables, alternating between stressed and unstressed syllables: By the | shores of | Gitche | Gumee).

Now, I don’t think I’d go so far as the placard does and call those rules “absurdly strict parameters.” The Song of Hiawatha is an epic poem, and as such it presents the found poet with an extensive lexicon to play with. And while trochaic tetrameter is an unnatural rhythm for English poetry, writing a poem in the same meter as the source material may be easier than expected. After all, Longfellow did a lot of the grunt work, finding words that fit the meter. Mining a good poem out of The Song of Hiawatha may still be a challenge, but it’s not an inconceivable one.

No, the real “absurdly strict parameter” is using Longfellow’s poem to write about this particular subject: a submarine crew during World War II. A lot of the vocabulary that one would think vital to such a story (“torpedo,” “bomb,” “submarine,” even “sailor”) is not present in the source material, and so cannot be used while still keeping with the form. That ninety-year gap between the Kelleys’ subject and their lexicon makes the whole script into a game of Taboo. So how do they work around those forbidden words?

Most obviously, the Kelleys have the advantage of working in film. Even if they do not permit themselves to say “tank of torpedo fuel,” for example, they can still depict the tank of torpedo fuel on-screen as itself. They just use a somewhat-related, metaphorical name in that phrase’s place, in this case, “kettle.” But that’s not quite satisfying to me as a writer; I want to see something beyond a one-to-one substitution.

Perhaps the Kelleys can simply write around the restricted vocabulary. Consider the following excerpt from Part I of the film:

Now he stirred that sluggish water,

And the food had been transfigured,

Changed into a weak, old whiteness,

Bitter so that none could drink it.

Take a moment, if you need to, to figure out what they’re describing in this excerpt.

If you guessed “powdered milk,” you’d be correct. That second line, “And the food had been transfigured,” is perhaps the most direct clue that the speaker is discussing instant food of some sort, and “that sluggish water” and “weak, old whiteness” would point towards milk in particular (“milk” being another word not found in The Song of Hiawatha). This is of course a long-winded means of describing a simple action, but that only enhances the grand sweep the Kelleys are going for here.

Yet my favorite moment of the Kelleys’ indirect description is perhaps the plainest. It comes during Truman’s speech following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Truman notes that many countries had “Chased the fearful, great achievement,” i.e., the production of nuclear weapons. That’s a wonderfully euphemistic way of framing an arms race: maybe acknowledging the dangers and the vices involved (“fearful”), but at the same time affirming the value and goodness of the mission (“great achievement”). Indeed, he later lists of the qualities of this “fearful, great achievement,” as though it were the hero in an Old English epic: “Smooth and polished, keen and costly.”

It’s no secret that I think constraints, especially self-imposed ones, are a boon for creativity. The past two semesters I’ve sent students a video series on the philosophy of creativity just to drive that point home. But what In the Body of the Sturgeon shows is that working within such constraints doesn’t require the flashiest metaphors, or the most virtuosic command of meter. Sometimes, restraints compel us toward understatement, toward plain language. And there is plenty of poetry to find therein.

If you’d like to see In the Body of the Sturgeon for yourself, you can do so at the Baltimore Museum of Art through August 19, 2018, alongside another of the Kelleys’ works, This Is Offal, as part of their exhibition We Are Ghosts. More information about the exhibition is available here.

More Than Transcription: Why the Smallest Details Matter

In Alain Robbe-Grillet’s short sketch “The Replacement,” from his 1962 collection Snapshots, a teacher repeatedly commands his young students to be mindful of the punctuation in their reading passage, interrupting them to point out the presence of a comma, the absence of a period. The goal is to get the students (and, by extension, you the reader) to “pay attention to what you are reading,” “to understand what you are reading.” Whether the teacher is successful is debatable: near the end of the piece, a student reads with exaggerated emphasis on the punctuation but “in a voice as devoid of expression as his classmate’s.”

A recent essay by Benjamin Obler over at Electric Literature got me thinking about that Robbe-Grillet sketch. Descriptively titled “How Writing Closed Captions Turned Me off TV for Good,” the essay details Obler’s experience in the world of caption writing, and how it affected his perceptions of the craft of writing and of television.

I’m not so much interested in Obler’s observations regarding the formulaic nature of television writing—I don’t watch enough scripted programming to have an opinion on it—as I am in his account of the caption writer’s values:

The Caption Writer is some kind type of linguistic intermediary between a machine and a hearing-impaired person or an English-language learner or a noisy room. Accuracy is the CW’s watch word. Verity. The CW is impartial, using punctuation and presentation to represent the speaker’s imperfections, emphases, uncertainty, directness or indirectness. Their ennui, their—

Writers will be familiar with Gustave Flaubert’s concept of le mot juste: the exact right word for a given situation. The caption writer, in Obler’s account, must strive for what we might call le caractère juste. To convey the audio track of a show through written text, one must fine-tune every aspect of the transcript: where to place a comma, when to use all-caps, how to describe a grunt.

These are not skills that necessarily come easily to a narrative prose writer. Even when a character in a short story or novel is based on a real person, all their qualities are ultimately creations of the author. There is no preexisting character to describe inaccurately. Not so with captioning, which requires an almost intuitive understanding of what the writer is hearing. As Obler puts it:

…all the Norton anthologies in the world could not teach me the difference between PHEW and [sigh], or a [disbelieving scoff] over an [exhales heavily], or the fine gradations on the surface of what I thought was a humdrum HMM and ho-humm MM-HMM.

Obler finds writing to this level of accuracy and precision to be quite a slog, and for good reason: it’s being applied to work that is not his own. Caption writing is socially necessary work, but it’s exhausting and it comes with no recognition (stations often cut away to commercials, Obler notes, before the captioner’s credit has time to load.) Why should he care if Sitcom Dad’s exasperation merits an “ugh” or an “ughhh”? What is Sitcom Dad to him?

But what if Sitcom Dad were his creation? In that case, I feel that the captioner’s commitment to accuracy, while being no less exhausting, would be far more rewarding. There’s a certain joy in rendering on the page what was so clearly heard in the head, in seeing one’s own idea so perfectly realized.

Or, if one prefers to write without a plan, such fine-tuning is a way to discover a voice, landscape, or gesture—or should it be a lilting “a voice, or a landscape, or a gesture,” or a curt “a voice, landscape, gesture”? Play around with it for a bit and you’ll find the answer.

Perhaps that why the teacher’s lesson in “The Replacement” reads like pointless drudgery: the only prize from the precision he demands is fidelity to the text. There’s no discovery in the reading process. There’s no understanding of how history would be different with a comma instead of a period.

“The Sin of the Apple”: Writing from the POV of an Object

I’ve long been fond of Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman’s compendium of writing advice, How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide (Harper Perennial, 2009). It’s a rather self-explanatory concept: these are the problems that plague countless unpublishable manuscripts, so do your best to avoid them. It’s also hilarious, both in terms of the bad writing samples and the authors’ commentary.

Now, categorical rules for good writing are rare indeed, and while their advice holds true in the vast majority of circumstances, Mittelmark and Newman don’t claim that their list is authoritative. To quote from their introduction: “We do not propose any rules; we offer observations. ‘No right on red’ is a rule. ‘Driving at high speed toward a brick wall usually ends badly’ is an observation.”

Even the least promising creative devices can be put to good use, however high the degree of difficulty. Case in point: making the narrator an inanimate object.

In their chapter on POV, Mittelmark and Newman write a short paragraph on the subject, with the wonderful title of “King Lear from the Point of View of the Throne”:

Writing from the point of view of a spoon, the world’s smallest mosquito, or Nero’s fiddle is generally inadvisable. The author is immediately faced with the task of accounting for the spoon’s ability to type, interest in human affairs, etc. (Unless it is a literary novel, where such things pass without comment.) Writing such a book is very difficult, and such strained gimmicks generally backfire. So unless you have an inner passion that drives you, willy-nilly, to sing the secret life of the toaster, it’s better to look to the toaster’s owner for you protagonist.

The whole “how can a spoon type?” question strikes me as overly literal-minded, but the point stands. “Strained gimmick” is a good phrase here. When I’ve gotten such stories from students (and I have), the inanimate POV is usually treated as some big twist. They’ll write a fairly mundane scene, and then at the end suggest that a spoon or whatever is narrating. It’s a twist on par with “The narrator was dead the whole time,” or “It was all a dream,” in that it doesn’t really add anything to the piece. We don’t learn what it means to be a spoon or a literal fly on the wall. It’s just a swerve for the sake of swerving.

So here’s a question: how do we break this rule successfully? Is there an example of a story written from an inanimate object’s point of view that benefits from that perspective? Well, I think I’ve found one: Luisa Valenzuela’s “The Sin of the Apple.”

Collected in Clara: Thirteen Short Stories and a Novel (trans. Hortense Carpentier and J. Jorge Castello, pub. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), “The Sin of the Apple” is a very short story, just 256 words long. It’s more of a monologue than anything else, which the apple directs at those whose look upon it, up until it falls, ripe and ready to be eaten.

So what does this story piece do right? For one thing, Valenzuela gives the apple clearly-defined traits. That is, she treats the POV-object as a character, not merely as a narrator. Consider the first few sentences: “They scrutinize me with eyes of hunger, those abominable gluttons. I’m beyond your reach, gentlemen, and I don’t intend to budge” (all quotes from p. 77). We can see that the apple is resolute, is perhaps a bit haughty, and has a negative opinion of those who’d seek to eat it. And the direct address, “gentlemen,” grounds the text in a specific situation. No generalities here; someone wants to eat the apple now.

Compare the above to a hypothetical rewriting: “The men below look hungry, but they have a hard time reaching me.” This conveys the same literal scene as Valenzuela’s text, but the apple’s character has vanished. It now relates events without comment, which is not quite as interesting for a protagonist. It also makes the text sound more like a riddle than story, playing it too coy with the identity of the narrator (if the title hadn’t given it away, that is).

Once she has established the apple’s attitude and personality, Valenzuela starts expanding on the apple’s status as an apple. Not for nothing does that narrator refer to itself as “the historical fruit”:

Remember: I’m a descendant, as you know, of Paris’s apple, of William Tell’s, of those of the Hesperides. I’m even related, in a direct line, to the scientific apple of Newton, the apple that has done so much for the human race. I’m a descendant . . .

These references serve two purposes. Firstly, they reinforce and even explain the apple’s self-regard. If the apple’s ancestors are so illustrious, able to start wars and inspire scientists, why shouldn’t the apple be proud? Secondly, they force the reader to consider the role of the apple in human society. It’s an object we normally take for granted, yet it figures into so much of our collective culture. Remember how I said that many stories from the POV of an object don’t really benefit from that perspective? This one does, because it takes the time to explain why it matters.

Of course, there’s one hugely important cultural association the apple has neglected to mention so far: Adam and Eve. (Yes, yes, the fruit they would have eaten was likely not an apple, but the association remains.) It’s a telling detail to forget: humanity is brought low in that story, and the apple is riding high on its ego. So it’s only fitting that, at this precise moment, the serpent appears to remind the narrator “of the frailty of [its] species, the great shame of the apple.”

This shame, we quickly see, has a profound effect on the apple: “I feel the shame mounting through the stem, it makes me hot, I feel myself blush. Oh, how red I am!” In literal terms, the apple is ripening, but in terms of the apple’s character, it’s the completion of an arc. The apple’s pride has proven fragile, and a fall, both literal and metaphorical, is sure to follow. Valenzuela has not simply compared ripening to blushing; she has made that comparison emotionally credible.

Then—and I must admit, this is the one decision in the piece that I’m not sure is successful—the POV shifts from the now-fallen apple to a third-person narrator focused on the men who had been eyeing it. We see one of the men bite into the apple, and then justify himself: “‘It’s only natural, it was ripe and it fell.'”

I see the emphasis on the word “natural,” which also appears earlier in the paragraph, as a crucial element here. It casts the apple’s monologue as something like an etiological fable, that is, a fable explaining why something is the way it is. In this case, apples turn red when they’re ripe because they’re ashamed of their role in the fall of man. An interesting fable, yes, but not as interesting as the character study. If nothing else, shifting the POV in a piece this short is bound to be disorienting, no matter how well-executed.

Still, we can learn a lot from following Valenzuela’s example. A POV-object should not be a cipher, a mere lens. It will have similar needs to a POV-person: a defined character, an emotional arc, etc. Crafting those traits and arcs and such requires some serious forethought and reflection, but such is the case for any piece of writing.

Also, and perhaps this is a personal preference, but this sort of piece should probably be kept short. There’s an inherent absurdity in an inanimate object telling a story, Valenzuela’s piece not excepted. At a certain point, the narrative will be ludicrous as more and more human-like qualities are given to the POV-object. This is obviously bad news for a serious-minded piece. And as for a humorous piece, well, comedy is like poetry: an art of concision.

I think I’ll leave you with a little writing exercise to go along with the discussion:

As mentioned above, Mittelmark and Newman call this particular device “King Lear from the Point of View of the Throne”. Try writing a short piece, say 250 words, which is precisely that: a story narrated by King Lear’s throne. (If you haven’t read King Lear, then 1) what are you waiting for? Read it! and 2) in the meantime, pick another royal story and try that.)

Think about how Valenzuela approaches the apple, giving it character and drawing on the associations it has for us, and apply that thought process to the throne. You also have a key piece of information to play with: this throne has a particular occupant. What’s that relationship like? How does it affect the narrator, if at all?