sharp photo by Max Greenstreet
When I taught writing, long ago, one of the most illuminating exercises I gave my charges was to have them write a little something in First Person, and then rewrite that little something in Third Person.
When Todd was in his forties, nearly thirty years ago, he gave writing workshops for adults and oversaw a Creative Writing program for teenagers. One of the more helpful exercises he gave his writers was to have them write a paragraph in First Person, and then have them rewrite the paragraph in Third Person.
Then I would ask my writers to change the tense of the paragraph.
Todd is in his forties, a novelist making his living by leading writing workshops and overseeing a Creative Writing Program for teenagers. He especially enjoys asking his writers to write a paragraph in First Person and then have them rewrite the paragraph in Third Person.
Then I might ask my writers to turn their paragraph into a fairy tale.
Once upon a time in a kingdom by the sea, there lived a scribbler name of Todd. A goodly fellow in his forties, his hair going every which way, Todd was not having much luck gaining patrons for his verse, so to keep food in the larder he set up shop as a teacher of writing. His teaching method was to deploy clever writing exercises that tricked his students into waxing poetic rather than staying stuck in the mundane. And by golly, his method worked.
Another related exercise was to have my writers write a brief story about someone going somewhere to get something.
Michael wakes up craving coffee and something sweet and doughy. Finding he is out of coffee beans and anything resembling a pastry, he dresses warmly and sets forth on this cold winter day for Muffins Galore, his home away from home, conveniently located just around the corner from his studio apartment.
Entering the deliciously warm little bakery, the display cases brimming with muffins and cookies and scones, the air redolent with the divine admixture of coffee fumes and just-baked bread, Michael forgets he is eighty-three, and for a long delightful moment thinks he is twenty-five again, the pretty young woman behind the counter his age peer, his life just beginning.
“I’ll have a bran muffin and a large coffee,” he says, smiling at the young woman—the sound of his raspy voice bringing him abruptly back to the present.
“As per usual,” says the young woman, winking at him.
Story written, I would ask my writers to rewrite the piece using short sentences.
Michael wakes in his lumpy bed. His studio apartment is freezing cold. January he thinks. I hate January. His back aches as usual. With a groan, he arises. “I crave coffee,” he says aloud. Michael lives alone and often talks to himself. “And something sweet and doughy.”
“Damn,” he says, finding no coffee beans in his little refrigerator.
He decides to go to the bakery around the corner from his place. Muffins Galore. He dresses slowly. Getting his socks and shoes on is his greatest challenge. Warmly attired at last, he sets forth into the wintry day.
The blessedly warm little bakery is Michael’s home away from home. He comes here two or three times every day. He sighs contentedly when he sees the display cases brimming with pastries. He breathes deeply of the coffee-scented air. For a short infinity, Michael forgets he is eighty-three. He thinks he is twenty-five again. He imagines the pretty young woman behind the counter is exactly his age. He is suffused with warmth and happiness.
“I’ll have a bran muffin and a large coffee,” he says, smiling at the young woman.
Hearing himself speaking, he is brought back to his present reality.
“As per usual,” says the young woman, winking at him.
I was put in mind of these exercises when I recently had a telling experience with the novel I’m writing, tentative title Flagon With the Dragon. I wrote the first hundred and fifty pages in First Person, Past Tense, and while reading those pages for the first time, I felt the narrator loomed so emotionally large that the other characters were insignificant by comparison, which was not what I’m ever after when I write a story or a book.
So I rewrote those pages in Third Person, Present Tense, and the several main characters were transmogrified into emotional equals (though entirely different from each other) and the story took several surprising turns that never would have happened had I stayed with First Person. What fun!
Having slowly made his way through the thick sheaf of pages of his new novel, Todd realizes his First Person narrator looms so psychically gigantic that the other characters in the novel pale by comparison. This inequality of emotional weight, so to speak, is the quantum opposite of what Todd wants for the characters in this novel, which is, or so it seems to Todd, a study in synchronized rebirth.
Whilst taking his morning constitutional, Todd has another realization about his writing. All the novels he ever sold to big mainstream publishers were First Person novels, yet he much prefers the last ten novels he’s written and failed to find publishers for, all of them Third Person novels. He concludes this is a largely irrelevant line of inquiry except for confirming his preference for writing books in Third Person.
Returning to his studio after his invigorating stroll, Todd decides to rewrite what he’s written so far of his new novel in Third Person, Present Tense—tentative title Flagon With the Dragon.
CUT TO: FIVE DAYS LATER
Todd sets down his pen and applauds the unseen forces of the universe for inspiring him to change the person and tense of his new novel so the several main characters are now on equal emotional footing, though wildly different from each other. What fun!
Used copies of Todd’s book of writing exercises, The Writer’s Path, abound online, and Todd has a small trove of new copies for sale. Email inquiries welcome.