Finding Your Voice: Writing in First Person (or Third)
This is something I’ve given a lot of thought to. Different chapters in my novel, DOGS WITH BAGELS, are written from different perspectives, some from the point of view of L, a young woman trying to make ends meet in New York City, and some from the perspective of her immigrant parents, Maria and Victor. Initially, though the point of view shifted from chapter to chapter, everything was written in the third person. Somehow, that didn’t feel right.
DOGS WITH BAGELS went through eleven meticulous rewrites, over the course of six years. I experimented with different styles, trying to find my voice, or rather, the voices of my characters. It was in one of the later drafts, that I decided to change all chapters written from L’s perspective to first person, leaving those written from either of the parents’ perspective in third person.
Suddenly, I had found L’s voice, which is clearly different than Maria or Victor’s. Maria, the mother, is nostalgic, but also reserved. L, on the other hand is insecure, and a bit scattered, having not yet figured out who she is. She is, however, chatty, open, and allows for more personal closeness than her guarded mother, whose life experiences have led her to be removed, at times, even from her own feelings. Writing L’s chapters in first person, felt fresh, and suddenly felt right. I felt like I finally got her. There are a few more distinctive elements to her. She mixes foreign phrases randomly into her musings, and derives great amusement from playing with words. But she also speaks to the reader directly, exposing her innermost thoughts without censorship.
While writing some chapters in first person, some in third, felt right to me, and allowed me to better craft my characters’ voices, some reviewers criticized this feature of my novel, pointing out that, stylistically this is simply not done. They said I should have used the omnipresent narrator instead. I had, indeed, experimented with that in the first few drafts, but it was not right for me, or for my characters.
Frankly, I love that my style includes something controversial. I get a huge kick out of the notion that in these post-modern times (or should I say neo-baroque instead?), in which everything appears to have been done, and every rule already been broken, there is still something a writer can do that ‘is simply not done.’ I think art has no rules. One simply does what artistically feels right. To me, the characters’ individuality, their emotions, and their style in relating to others, the very distance they choose to take from their own lives, is best conveyed by changing perspective, and changing from first person to third person too. I’d rather write in a way that gives my story life and feeling, than in a style others deem correct.
This reminds me of a painting I did once, in which I had mixed different mediums. I was told by a more seasoned artist, that oils and acrylics should never be used jointly, because in the long run, they would not stick to each other. Later, I incurred similar criticism for writing on the walls at one of my art exhibits. The background to my paintings was white paper upon which I had written everything from a love letter to a former beau, to strange things about my dislike for science fiction, to bad words, and political slogans. Some people liked it, some found it odd and distracting.
One day, as I was visiting my favorite art gallery in Houston, the Cy Twombly gallery, I realized that in my favorite painting, a huge panel with tremendous emotional impact, Cy Twombly had done all of the things I had been told not to do: The panel is a combination of acrylic and oil. He wrote on it, in pen, like a naughty child scribbling on the walls. He simply had given himself freedom to not follow any rules, but rather make his own. And there I had it, as clear as day: Art requires freedom. Sometimes, creating something worthwhile means allowing oneself to do things one’s own way. In the end, what matters to me, is the emotional impact of a work of fiction or a painting, not the stylistic rigor, or the adherence to rules that are debatable anyway.
Liliana is the disappointing daughter of hardworking immigrant parents. She is a girl looking to be rescued from her own insecurities and bad decisions. Unable to afford rent in New York City proper, she is craving a life of luxury that isn’t hers, while subsisting on bagels and coffee. In desperate need of support - emotional and otherwise -, she clings to potential saviors, never bothering to question if the attachments she forms really fit her.
In a parallel storyline, her mother, Maria, is trying to reject all offers of help, especially those of her estranged husband, whose unexpected generosity forces her to revisit past mistakes she hasn't come to terms with. Enmeshed in her own drama, she doesn’t notice her daughter’s troubles until it’s too late. Desperate to keep Liliana from making a mistake that will alter the course of her life, Maria reveals her best-kept secret, a story so shocking it might have the power to jerk Liliana back to reality. It could, on the other hand, alienate her forever.
DOGS WITH BAGELS is a story about the American dream gone bad. It is also a story about mothers and daughters, about female friendships, the struggle to survive in one of the world’s most expensive cities, and women’s secret desire to have wild passionate sex with their exes. A cross between Bridgett Jones’ Diary and Sex and the City - with an accent! -, DOGS WITH BAGELS is as addictive as a trashy tabloid you can't seem to put down.
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Genre - Contemporary Women's Fiction
Rating – R
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