There are few books that come up with my writer friends more often than Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. In the same way that I feel like I’m not quite smart enough because I’ve never taken Calculus, I’ve felt like a slacker because I never got around to reading it.
And I should have felt guilty–because it’s great.
Okay, so it has a lot of rather vulgar language, but Lamott’s writing is so funny, and yet so useful, that I’m pretty much in love with the book.
One of the interesting bits of advice that Lamott gives writers is a gem she attributes to the author Ethan Canin. The most important way to improve your writing, he says, is to employ a likeable narrator.
Here’s the thing that struck me about this advice: for many, many years, I always wrote in third person. Then, I went to a workshop at the West Coast SCBWI conference many years ago where (the marvelous children’s author) Lisa Yee revealed that her editor had recently asked her to rewrite an entire book manuscript into first person. And, she said, the editor was right, because her book was so much more alive after that.
Almost immediately afterwards, I started to experiment with first person. I write from that POV about half the time now. When you capture the narrator’s voice well, it immediately draws you in. You want to hang out with the character, shmooze a bit and see what they’re up to. They become your friend. (Which reminds me again of Alan Paskow’s theory that characters are partly real.)
Why did it take me so long to write from the first person POV? I’m the type of person who likes to be genuine. That’s one of the reasons I’m a hat/tichel/headscarf-wearing type of Jew, not a wig/sheitl-wearing one. I’ve never been into dyeing my prematurely grey hair or wearing lots of makeup. I don’t wear a mask on Purim, never acted on stage. Perhaps I felt that assuming the voice of a character that wasn’t named Rebecca was a big fat lie.
My concerns were only partly justified. What makes the first person work is when you assume a false identity, but make it real by tapping into your own beliefs and experiences. How Ann Lamott describes this is finding an inner truth.
Recently, I started rewriting an old book manuscript that had never sold. I had dug it up from a drawer and examined what I had thought was the final draft to see if I had a hint as to why the editors had never picked it up (despite two nibbles). The first thing I noticed was that it was in third person. The next thing I did was rewrite the entire thing into first person. Suddenly, the whole thing sparkled with life.
Then something unexpected happened, something Lamott discusses in Bird by Bird. The main character–now my narrator–changed. Now that she was talking to me, her personality became clearer. She wasn’t Miss Perfect anymore, but Miss Perfect whose world was rocked. I had to make a cascading wave of changes generated by this character and what she was saying to me.
So, if you’re reading this post, and you usually write in third person, you have an assignment: go (re)write something into first person.