My friend Marilyn Yahnke, who’s a wonderful painter, has been trying her hand at writing the past few years. I’ve been trying my hand at painting and drawing. When we talk (which isn’t often enough), we marvel at how much the same they are. How seeing the world, really seeing it, is fundamental to both. How both have a set of rules and conventions you must commit to learning if you ever expect to get any good—and how learning them earns you the right to go your own way when going your own way seems the only possible solution to creating the painting or story in your head.
Perspective, composition, color theory; Grammar, punctuation, the elements of fiction are the good bones on which any good painting or story is made.
So I signed up for “Drawing for Future Painters” at the Indianapolis Art Center this winter, determined to get better at that "bones"thing.. “Everything fits in a box,” my teacher said on the first day. “If you can draw a box, you can draw anything.”
That is, if you can draw a box…in perspective.
Which is a lot harder than you might think.
But I love getting lost in the lines and angles, trying and failing to get one box right, then the one next to it, and the one behind. It’s like writing. You need to keep remembering that you’re trying to draw a certain box, the one in front of you—right now. If you move, the composition changes, and if you’re not careful you’ll find yourself drawing a whole other set of boxes.
Sort of like when you hang one strip of wallpaper out of plumb, which affects the next strip and the next and next and next until you get to the end, where the wallpaper meets the end of the wall in a very unfortunate slant.
Sort of like when you start out writing a story and go off on a tangent, eventually realizing that you’ve lost the focus, the thread. The characters are all over the place, doing and saying things that make no sense whatsoever based on what you were trying to accomplish.
Anyway. I’m struggling with staying in one place to draw the boxes, trying to master that little pencil trick artists do to figure out the proportion of one line to another. My friend, Marilyn, is struggling with point of view.
“What is it?” she asked. “For example, Beloved by Toni Morrison. I am getting the thoughts (things only they would know) of several main characters—Sethe, Paul D. Denver, Beloved. Is it okay to allow several characters to have their voice, but with the distinction of page or chapter breaks? This has puzzled me in several books, the really deep, good ones."
Oh, boy, I thought. Toni Morrison is not a good place to start learning the fundamentals of point of view. Talk about breaking the rules when the rules don’t fit what’s in your head. She’s a freaking genius at it.
The point of view in Beloved changes constantly from one main character to another. Now and then whole new points of view are added, when Morrison needs them to say something she wants to say. And as if that weren’t enough to drive an aspiring writer crazy, the novel doesn’t tell a linear story, but offers the reader fragments of shattered lives and asks him to make sense of it.
I was about to write back to Marilyn and say, “Forget Beloved.” And suggest some novels that treat point of view traditionally, as a way of getting a handle on how that element of fiction works.
Then I thought about how, drawing a still life, you have to keep looking at it from exactly the same place and it occurred to me that point of view works exactly the same way.
If you choose to tell a story from one person’s point of view, you have to keep seeing the world through his eyes. If, suddenly, you start looking at it through somebody else’s eyes, the world shifts—and the effect of that shifting is as jarring as a wrong angle.
Yes, you can tell a story from more than one point of view. But once you’re in one person’s point of view, you can’t jump in and out of others at will. When multiple points of view work, it's like crossing a river on stepping-stones. You move from one to the next, telling what needs to be told from that place. Then you move on to the next one and tell that part of the story.
Not unlike how you have to draw one whole box before moving on to the next one, whose placement will be dependent upon it.
Sometimes people confuse multiple points of view with the omniscient point of view. This point of view doesn't allow the characters any say in telling their stories. Instead, the story is told by an unnamed being who's not in it. Somebody who stands above the story, like a sentient God, who sees everything like an aerial photograph set in motion. "He" shapes and tells the story, making choices about which parts of the big picture to reveal and how to reveal them based on what the reader needs to know to understand the people and the situation they’re in.
Like I said, Beloved breaks all the rules.
Think of Picasso fracturing the world and putting it back together in way that’s all wrong…but absolutely right.
And Paul Klee's notebooks, filled with landscapes and figures rendered in perfect perspective juxtaposed against a gallery filled with his whimsical paintings.
So, Marilyn, does that help?
And thanks for the question, which made me see something I hadn’t seen before.
Perspective and point of view are exactly the same thing.
Dang! Who knew?
To see Marilyn's paintings, visit: www.marilynyanke.com.