Tuesday, October 14, 2014

We, the Other Mothers, Do Not Salute You

Over the weekend I revised the story I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the one I thought came out pretty well. I was right, it came out pretty well. I'll name it the Girl Scout story here. It was hard to write but easy to revise (which, like, THANK YOU, LITTLE BABY JESUS), and I'm pleased with it. Matt's read revealed no major problems (which may actually be a first), another reader loved it and had no suggestions, and I even sent it to the hardest critic in my life, who loved it. I have submission plans for it already, but I'm also handing it out to my workshop class. I'll find out next Monday what they thought of it, and of course you'll hear about that.

I did lots of other stuff this weekend, too: saw an amazing opera, went to an unbelievable Hollywood costume exhibition, went out to dinner to celebrate my birthday (which was yesterday), did part of a very hard writing exercise, read about half of Toni Morrison's Jazz. Having a real job, even though it's part-time, has really changed the shape of my free hours, which is why so much had to squeeze into those two days. Lots to say about that, but I don't really want to get into it, here or anywhere else, honestly.

Although it is part of the reason why there was no post in this space on Friday. I didn't know what to write about, and I didn't really have the mental time to come up with a topic. I asked for feedback about post topics on Facebook and got some good answers, so look for that this Friday and in other posts to come. In the meantime, I think I'll veer right back to the story I revised this weekend as an opportunity to talk about the first-person plural point of view.

If you don't know what I mean, first-person plural is "we."
We found what we were looking for in the small freezer at the front of the shop - Cornettos, of course, in paper wrappers, which we greedily tore open and crunched and licked until they were gone. 
If you didn't just get the urge to watch Shaun of the Dead, I'm not sure we can be friends anymore

After he read the Girl Scout story, which is written in first-person plural, Matt asked me who else writes in this POV. I told him Joshua Ferris, of course, Then We Came to the End, and he said yeah, you always mention that guy, who else? I said um...well, me, I guess. I'd told him that first-person plural wasn't an uncommon way to tell a story, but promptly failed to think of any other stories or novels I've read in that POV. (Examples are welcome in the comments.)

What is first-person plural good for? I can't give you college-sanctioned answers to that question, but I can tell you that I've used it for two stories (and read it in a well-executed novel) where the intention was to give the sense of a collective mindset. Whether that mindset is actually shared in its entirety by the whole group of characters to whom the "we" refers is part of what gives the stories, or the novel, their tension. In End, the characters are all co-workers, so the POV serves as an interesting commentary on the nature of the millennial workplace. Ferris also positions the co-workers separately from their boss, who is quietly battling breast cancer, throughout the novel. There's a we and then there's a she. It's a useful construct for character conflict.

The characters that compose the we also have separate identities - ways in which they stand apart from what they share as part of the collective. In both of the stories I've written in first-person plural, this distinction crops up at a crucial point in the narrative. It's meant to be the crest of a wave, the point when the prose points out the characters' distinctions.
A few of us wonder again whether she’s sleeping with Ray, and whether this means that she has his ear. Only two of us know that she isn’t and doesn’t.
In the Girl Scout story, my intention was to invoke a specter from my childhood: The Other Mothers. O, the dreaded Other Mothers. The heartless, judgy, gossipy clan of women who do everything right and observe every tiny thing you do wrong. For whom there are evidently thirty hours in the day to accomplish it all, instead of your own twenty-four. Who notice, and remember forever, the one day your child had dirty fingernails or tangled hair, the one day you yanked your kid by the arm and yelled instead of speaking patiently and wisely, the one day you put Doritos into the lunch box instead of apple slices. Of course The Other Mothers are not a united army (God help us all if they become one), but the ways in which they are the same are virulent, and have the potential to form interesting conflicts at, say, a Girl Scout meeting at which there arrives a new and different mom. Enter first-person plural, where The Other Mothers are the we.

I mean, thank goodness

I don't know if I'm doing this right, of course. It's possible that the conclusions I drew about what I observed in End are not the correct conclusions, and I'm using first-person plural wrong. I guess Monday will be an opportunity to hear about that, and to find out from our professor if there's something else I could or should be doing with the POV. If I'm wrong, I will mind, of course, but I'll mind a lot less than I would if I hadn't had the opportunity to put this story on paper in the meantime.

See you Friday. We'll be waiting.


ST said...

Jeffrey Eugenides' Virgin Suicides is first person plural-- and Karen Lee Boren's novella Girls in Peril as well. I think it's a wonderful perspective, but I'm kind of glad it's underused-- it feels like a rare, unusual treat.

Also, Katharine, I want to read your stories. It's so great to get to read your posts here, and… I want more!

ST said...

Also, ST is Sido Tise, oh my goodness.

Katharine Coldiron said...

YES, Virgin Suicides, I always forget that one. That's a great use of the POV. Thanks for reminding me. And thanks for the compliment!