Last weekend I attended the annual conference of the South Carolina Writers’ Association, and I’m still processing all the information I learned. This afternoon, I’m thinking of something Therese Fowler, keynote speaker and author of A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, taught during an afternoon session on point of view.
I got confused. Or I thought I was confused, but a friend reassured me that I wasn’t as ignorant as I thought when she said, “You already know this. You just don’t know that you know.”
“Oh” I said. “How do you know that I know?”
“Because I’ve read your work.”
In her session, Fowler suggested using a photograph as a prompt to spark a memory. Since she was presenting information on effectively using point of view, she said to look at the picture and, using first person present, ask ourselves these questions:
I’m standing, sitting, kneeling, crouching swimming, hiking, etc.
She’s looking at me (or something like that)
After jotting the ends of the above sentences, Fowler instructed, then go to first person past, what she referred to as the vantage point, and respond to the same prompts. The past you is going to narrate the scene so we feel like we’re (whoever the reader is) there through the sensory details. The narrator you has the wisdom gained from that experience. That person is on the other side looking back.
Heavy. But not as heavy as I thought it would be. As luck would have it, earlier that week, two photographs had fallen from a book, one of them taken in October 1989. I know that because of my mother’s beautiful handwriting on the back. Below are my preliminary responses to the open-ended statements.
First Person Present
I’m standing on the front porch of 511 Chesnut, happy to have had dinner (probably a Sunday) with parents, siblings, and everyone’s children. It’s October, and omg look at those huge brown leaves on the sidewalk.
I’m wearing jeans and a black turtleneck. My hair is in a French braid, something I’ve recently learned to do.
I’m with my parents, my siblings, our spouses, and our children.
She’s looking at me (or something like that). Seems like many are looking at something else and paying no heed to the camera. Lisa, Ann, Elizabeth, and Matthew are def preoccupied. Mama is looking straight ahead, happy to have her family around her.
I feel happy, at peace. I’m surrounded by the people I love and am well aware of my good fortune. I also feel a little anxious about getting home before dark.
I wonder what I have to do to get ready for tomorrow…not just for me and my classes but for the children. Do they have clean clothes? Do they have unfinished homework?
First Person Past
I was standing on the front steps of my parents’ home, a house that would later become mine.
I thought that everything would continue just the way it was (when I thought about it at all).
I wanted to hit the road for home because I knew what Mondays were like for all of us.
I was wearing black, my favorite color in those days. Still a good one. I hadn’t begun coloring my hair but started it a few years after this photo was snapped (by whom?). Because of the girls, I had begun to think of it as something fun and different instead of the negative connotations of aging.
I was with my family, including my youngest brother David and his family, and I suspect their being in SC was the reason for an October get-together.
I didn’t know that October would become the most beautiful and the saddest month of the year. Already experiencing effects of COPD, Daddy would be gone in nine Octobers and Mama in eleven.
I also didn’t know (or even dream) that twenty-three more people would be in the photo if taken today. That’s absolutely amazing to consider. Mama and Daddy knew none of those people except for Rich, and only Mama knew him since Daddy died in 1998, and Carrie and Rich met and married in 1999.
Your turn. Take out a photograph and try the exercise. To make the experience even richer, you might try getting different people in a photograph to respond to the same statements. Getting different perspectives might be quite illuminating.