Three times each semester, a knell rings for an MFA Creative Fiction student at CSU. Do you hear it? That, my friend, is the harkening of a deadline.
Three stories a semester might not seem like much. Each clocking in at somewhere close to twenty pages, double spaced, they’re perfectly manageable when looked at as a steady pile of paper, joined together with a paper clip or staple and reassuringly stamped with your name. But that’s just the end result. Twenty pages translated at 250 words a page is 5,000 words a story, which means in a semester you must go from a flashing cursor to 15,000 words. And not just any words. These are not ramshackle college papers that you toss out over a caffeine-fueled night in the library. These papers are delicate confections spun from your mind, integrating soul and thought and vocabulary into one succinct story that has the power to move, to effect, to change lives.
That’s the dream, anyway.
The reality is harsher when that deadline is staring you in the face. At least for me, the knee-jerk response is to do something I’m comfortable with, which in my case means third-person point of view. Have you ever heard the phrase “ships are safe in harbors, but that’s not what ships are for”? The first part of that quote is true of my writing life: I definitely feel safe in my particular POV harbor.
When thinking of a story idea, I nearly always see it from the perspective of an omniscient narrator, who can peek in and out of the minds of her characters on a whim. But if you’ve read a few books over your lifetime (if you’re reading this blog, I’ll assume you have), you will come to the realization, as I did, that not every book is written in one point of view. Not everyone shares my love for that omniscient third-person butting their heads into the narrative.
In class this semester, I’ve had the opportunity to watch my peers work wonders with second-person close, first-person distant, and every other point of view mentioned in the grammar text books. Both of my submissions, while lovely and artful (to my mind, at least), stayed close to comfortable shore, remaining in third-person.
So when it came time to write the last story of my first semester of graduate studies, I could stay safe, or I could play it fast and loose with perspective.
With that deadline looming in your mind, it is so very easy to become inured in choosing the path of least resistance. This doesn’t mean my previous stories were bad, but it does mean that I have not yet attacked a major writer insecurity head on.
I wrote my final story in the first-person point of view, and I have to say: the experience was enlightening and—dare I say it—fun. After getting over my fears that it wouldn’t be any good, that it would be too difficult to accomplish in the time allotted, I stopped worrying and started writing.
This lesson is a valuable one for any writer, especially those pursuing further education. We’re not studying because we want to maintain our skills; we’re studying because we want to grow. Taking a risk by confronting your writer insecurities can be a powerful experience. Not every piece will be a master work, but that’s true of anything you’ve written.
My new truism I’ll remember whenever I sit down to my keyboard: writers may be safe in their usual harbors, but that’s not what stories are for.