Narrative Tradecraft #1 – Perspective

This post originally appeared at

Perspective, or point of view – which I’ll use synonymously here, colors how we experience everything, and in many ways is the foundational element with which we work in our Living Poems, Writing Lives course. We engage various “tools” as both literary devices and as strategies for living our healing narratives in an intentional way. These devices include, and are not limited to, point of view/perspective, imagery, metaphor, diction, ‘music’, drama/conflict, theme, texture, revision and completion.

P1030093The point of view through which any one of us experiences and assesses his or her life emerges through a variety of factors that includes development within specific intelligences or developmental lines (e.g. cognitive, moral, spiritual, kinesthetic, emotional), personality, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, childhood (and adult) experiences, religious affiliation or lack thereof, health – in the broadest meaning of the word, and political affiliation – just to name a few, and also what we might call the center of gravity or general worldview that is the cumulative effect of these factors.  Trusting, for the sake of argument, that there are objective events in the world – the tree falls, the car starts, he drops the glass, the heart skips a beat, the train is late, the flower blooms – it is our point of view, the perspective through which we experience the event, that determines what meaning we give it and how we respond.

One aspect of point of view that we are exposed to early in our formal language education is the use of first-, second- and third-person perspectives – respectively the voices of the speaker, the spoken to and the spoken about. Another way to say this is that I, me, and mine orient from the self’s speaking about the self; you, your and yours orient from the self in relationship with and speaking to another; and he, she, it, they, their(s) and them orient from the self’s speaking about the other(s).

Each of these ‘person perspectives’ has a significant impact on the writer, and also on the reader of any given text. As we engage our healing narratives, whether in poetry or prose, the intentional choice of person is an effective, and often a liberating, strategy.P1030094

Some issues, events, memories and losses are incredibly difficult to write in first-person, especially early on. The attempt to write my own story about a him or a her can open doors that are just too painful to approach if I write about myself directly. “He sat quietly, in stunned disbelief, as the doctor recited his test results,” might be quite a bit more writeable at first than “I sat quietly…” for a writer who is coming to terms with a difficult diagnosis.

The point here is not that one person-perspective is more effective than the others, but that each does something different and we are always free to choose and change our minds in the moment in order to ascertain which serves us best right now and leads us most effectively towards healing.

Working with person-perspective is also effective with our clients as we coach. At a basic level, it’s very common to fall into a generalized use of second- or third-person language: “You get bored and so you eat too much…” or “You know, people get bored and eat too much…” when “I get bored and eat too much…” is the intended message. This simple shift into the ownership of “I…” language can be an effective awareness-creating move for our clients (and for us).

A bit mP1030095ore sophisticated is the intentional movement from the more distant third-person message, “She’s always criticizing…” to the more intimate relationship of second-person, “You’re always criticizing,” to the even more intimate, “I’m always criticizing…” Exploring each of these and its relative truth can be an incredibly powerful experience.

Perhaps the easiest way to engage point of view and the multitude of factors that contribute to it, including, but not limited to person-perspective, is play. Play with the language. Become something you’re not and write for two (or more) minutes from the first-person perspective of what you’ve become. Write as a snowflake in a blizzard, or the last leaf on the maple tree, or your toothbrush – or anything else in the world. Have fun.

If you’d like to get a feel for the power of person-perspective as you do this, first write in third person – about, then in second – in dialogue with, and finally in first – as, the snowflake. When you’re ready, choose a human being instead of a ‘thing’ and see where the writing takes you.  If you choose someone who you consider is “not like you” or with whom you have a challenging relationship, what emerges can be deeply insightful.

Whether you intentionally select, or are aware of, your point of view, it exists. To the extent that you’re aware, you have your point of view; to the extent you are unaware, it has you. Why not choose in a way that serves you, that nurtures, and does not inhibit, your healing?

Learn more: Our friends at Integral Institute have developed an effective 3-2-1 Process that explores Shadow through person-perspectives.

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