A student emails me: she's just joined a writing group who believes you can tell the difference between professional-quality fiction and the amateur stuff by how consistent the point of view is. This is what they’ve told her at her first meeting, critiquing her first piece. Imagine.
I want to back up and first say that my one-week writing class was her first venture into creative writing. My class's main objectives were to encourage and inspire. We read Ann Lamott and applauded each other’s shitty first drafts. We literally played with language: arranged and rearranged scraps of paper with words printed on them. I encouraged them to seek out a writing group when they returned home--for support--and she did. I'm trying to imagine me sitting down to try my hand at, say, watercolor painting--my student's a gifted visual artist, a professional who teaches art, who has her own work up in galleries--and have somebody point out the many differences between my first tentative brushstrokes and Winslow Homer's light-dappled rowboats.
Which is not to say that her writing group was altogether wrong. There does need to be a reliable point of view system at work in any piece of fiction. This means that a writer must respect the limitations of the point of view he or she has chosen. A first person narrative, for example, cannot suddenly morph into third. Nor can the first person narrator know more than he knows.
But, then again, think for a moment about everything you know. I know, for example, that my daughter’s favorite color is red. Now, she’s not here, and I’m not in her head, but if I were the first-person narrator in a work of fiction, I could tell you straight-out: Abby loves the color red. She will choose the red soda, the red sandals (especially if they’re sparkly), the red notebook. I don’t have to say, “Abby once told me that she likes red.” I can skip all that: “Abby likes red.”
I also know that my younger sister would never get a tattoo and that my older sister would (has). I know that fifty years ago, in this part of North Carolina, furniture was king. I know that, in the spring of 1992, (almost) everyone in my high school graduating class knew at least the chorus to “Hard to Handle” by the Black Crowes. I’m willing to bet most of them still know it. I do.
Of course, I don’t know-know all of these things, or any of them. But, I think it just shows that point of view is a bit trickier than my student’s writing group made it out to be. Little inconsistencies--what I imagine they were talking about--are usually pretty easy to point out. Sometimes, it’s a pronoun slip, sometimes it’s a problem of perspective: it just would not sound natural for me to describe how my own blue eyes are widening at the sight of my younger sister’s brand-new tattoo. And, these little inconsistencies are pretty easy to fix.
But these are the mere mechanics of point of view; point of view is about space and humanity and art and the language with which the story is told. I think one should save most point of view worries for the second or third draft. Most stories simply lean towards a point of view in the early drafts. It’s organic. Pliant, too, at this stage: If you hear a character speaking to you, I say go ahead and write it in first, and if later, you sense a need to put a little space between the narrative and the protagonist, switch to third.
I think sometimes we try to make too many decisions too quickly. We have to be calm and ride out the small and large identity crises our stories suffer through. Uncertainty, in life and in writing, is uncomfortable. But, in both writing and life, uncertainty is a given. It's part of the process. Relax; you're supposed to feel this way.
In any case, I think it’s short-sighted to say that point of view alone determines a story’s worth. Also, I think the real trick is not in avoiding slip-ups but rather in fully realizing the dimensions of a particular point of view. The loss comes not in mis-use, but in under-use.