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Interview by Colin Hosten & Zac Zander, Nonfiction Editors
Experimenting with point-of-view is a difficult task, especially in nonfiction. Chauna Craig provides an interesting perspective and her own experience when writing other than first person. Her unique and enlightening responses on the hardships and advantages of writing in a different point-of-view will be beneficial to those nonfiction writers who wish to challenge the conventional.
With regard to point of view, what opportunities or restrictions do you think writers of nonfiction face as opposed to fiction writers or poets?
First, I think the biggest challenge for a creative nonfiction writer is escaping the “I” because I don’t think it’s ultimately possible. Even with journalistic third person point of view, calling a piece of writing nonfiction means claiming that there is something being reported that is (at least somewhat) verifiably true. That means there is always a reporter and that reporter, whether immediately involved or a distant observer, is also the writer. Fiction can wrap the writer in so many layers of narrator and character that the writer as constructor of meaning can virtually disappear. Not so with nonfiction. The nonfiction writer has to start with the understanding that she or he is constructing a story and make decisions around how much that construction will be admitted as such. I see that as an opportunity, by the way. Poets, poor poets, labor under the constant fallacy of readers presuming the speaker to be the poet. Creative nonfiction writers can embrace that assumption then play intentionally with which of our multiple selves is interacting with the text or audience at any given point in an essay or memoir. Locate and dislocate. Locate and relocate. Work within that seeming limitation of writer as reporter of events and it becomes a real opportunity to think about what a reporting self is.
What is the biggest challenge of using a point of view other than first person in nonfiction?
The biggest challenge of using any point of view is knowing and being able to articulate to yourself and others the rationale of that choice based on its effects, intended or otherwise. Write about yourself in second or third person because it reveals something new that first person couldn’t capture, because it’s intentional for that piece, not because it’s stylistically different or trendy. By all means, experiment, but don’t do it to be experimental. Do it to find the most authentic way to tell the story that you need to tell.
How do you determine which point of view is most effective for your story? Does it help to use third person, for example, if you are writing about a specific version of yourself?
This is going to sound simplistic, but I believe you discover what is most effective because it works, because it resonates with you as you write and as you read what you’ve written. I think we all know, if we’re attuned to ourselves, when we’re being inauthentic, when we’re trying to impress or trying to conform to what we think is expected or what appears to be most commercially successful or even to what seems most countercultural. That said, you can’t know what’s effective or even authentic until you’ve tried on a few different “outfits” in the mirror. Sometimes you have to walk all over town before realizing that your really hot new pair of heels may make your legs look longer, but they’re also going to end up crippling you if you you try to go dancing.
I’m working on a book-length memoir right now that switches from the intimacy of first person to these more distant, third person reports of people surviving avalanches. I don’t know if these reports will remain in the final version (I think they will, but maybe I’ll get blisters and go back to the comfortable shoes of first person), but they do allow me to draw connections to my own experiences without explicitly telling my emotional states. Smart readers will pick that up and hopefully recognize the story I’m trying to tell that is bigger than my own emotional crisis. I think that pulling back into third person reports also breaks or redirects the emotional tension for readers in a way that strikes me as effective for pacing purposes. It’s also authentic to how I processed uncomfortable realizations at the time I’m writing about—sudden switch to focusing on someone else’s painful experiences so as to avoid my own. I don’t know how well I’ll be able to pull this off, but I am trying to represent my own emotional processes through the choice of switching point of view, which is something I haven’t tried as a writer of nonfiction before.
Gertrude Stein still stands out to me as someone who handled all the layers of point of view in nonfiction brilliantly by writing The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, in which the first person narrator is in fact Gertrude’s lover telling of her life with Gertrude Stein. Stein entering the first person point of view of someone she knows and loves in order to tell her own story in third person. It works more like fiction in that respect, but no one would dispute that it tells Gertrude Stein’s life story and reveals more about her relationship with Alice than if she’d commented on that relationship from her own first person point of view.
If you could live out a story through the POV of any one character in literature, which character would you choose, and why?
This is the question I struggled with most because there are so many fascinating characters out there, and a fairly recent trend in fiction is to retell well-known stories from the point of view of a minor character or even an invented one, such as Ahab’s wife. And of course changing the point of view may not change major plot points, but it always changes the story.
Along those lines, I keep thinking of the character of Faith, Young Goodman Brown’s wife in Hawthorne’s tale of the Puritans. I would really like to see what she did that night he went into the forest to meet the devil. I imagine her at home, writing love poems like those of Anne Bradstreet to her husband. Then he returns with this belief that everyone he thought was pure and holy before is now purely sinful, including his new wife. How would she even begin to make sense of this transformation and how would she go on to have children with him and live all those years with someone we’re told is miserable. That’s the story I want, and a shift in point of view is key to unlocking that story.
What is the one thing writers of nonfiction should not do when dealing with point of view?
Never count your cards until the dealing’s done.
Would you be willing to rewrite this whole interview in a different point of view?
Chauna really doesn’t like talking about herself in third person. She thinks it makes her sound like a toddler, a parrot, or a minor psychotic character being manipulated by Hannibal Lector. Second person is striking and authentic when done by fiction writers Lorrie Moore or Jay McInerney, but Chauna is not Lorrie Moore or Jay McInerney. (However, it should be noted that her use of “you” with the high heels metaphor earlier was clearly not “you” the reader, since many of you, male or female, don’t wear high heels, but neither is it the “I” masquerading as “you” since I don’t wear the damn things either, even if I sometimes wish my legs appeared longer.) So second person is out because it’s already too confusing and a little sexist.
But the royal “we”…we just might be willing to try that.
Chauna Craig’s stories and essays have appeared in magazines such as Prairie Schooner, Fourth Genre, and CALYX and the anthologies Sudden Stories (Mammoth Press) and You Have Time for This (Ooligan Press). Her work has been recognized by Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize anthology, and she’s won fellowships to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Hedgebrook Writers Retreat. She currently teaches creative writing at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and is perfectly well aware that she is following expectations and writing about herself in the third person in this context.