Point of view in non-fiction

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Image of an owl with one eye closed.If your experience of high school English was anything like mine, you’ll have spent a lot of time producing essays which consist of all the things you’re told that your examiner wants to read. Anyone who’s studied Shakespeare’s Hamlet will know that you need to mention the tragic flaw of procrastination in your essay, and I suspect most ‘What I did in my Holidays’ essays cover weirdly similar ground. 

Maybe there’s a place for that approach, especially when it comes to factual accuracy and clarity of expression, aspects of essay writing which you shouldn’t mess around with. But at the same time it can make you a fearful writer, only comfortable covering the topics that you’re certain your readers will want to read about, and rarely venturing an opinion other than received wisdom. You can become afraid that a reader will disagree. That’s a problem, as it can result in you subordinating what you think about the world to a safer, more general, ultimately bland take on how things are. 

The best writers are rarely this cautious: instead they have confidence in their own subjective experience, their own point of view. This doesn’t mean being polemical for the sake of it, or having licence to shock or offend. Among my favourite non-fiction writers are Maggie Nelson, John Berger and Kathleen Jamie. In their very different ways they are all bold in presenting their own thoughts, opinions, and ways of seeing the world. Look up their work and see if you agree with everything they say. Does it matter if you don’t?

If you feel like your inner critic is always telling you what you should and shouldn’t write about, and is always pushing you towards received wisdom rather than what you really think, then here’s an exercise to build your confidence in your own point of view. 

With a notebook and pen, take a 30-minute walk. Go with a companion – this might be another writer, but it could equally be a family member or friend. Write down everything you see, details from overheard conversations, the smells and other sensations you encounter along the way. Record your emotional responses as well as memories which are triggered by the things you come across. Don’t discuss your observations with each other as you’re walking. Each of you should keep a separate record, but walk together along the same route. If you’re unable to walk far, you can still do this exercise: sit with a friend, and without conferring write down all you can remember about a place you both know well. Each of you should produce a separate page of reflections about this place.

Once you’ve completed the journey, compare notes. How do your two records of the walk (or remembered place) differ from each other? Did you notice different sights, sounds and smells? How do your emotional responses compare? Did either of you highlight something which the other has no memory of?

Each of you has compiled your own subjective account of the walk. Now write yours up into a more polished piece, concentrating on the details which made your notes unique. The things which you’re predisposed to notice, and to respond strongly to, are part of what makes you who you are. Everyone’s subjectivity is different. In relationships, and in society, respect for this difference is important. In writing and reading, too, it’s essential that we encounter perspectives other than our own. Readers want to read your take on things. Let me repeat that with another emphasis. Reader want to read your take on things.

Image of owl © Jean van der Meulen from Pexels

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