Since my first novel, Geographies of the Heart, was published in January, a couple of readers have asked about my use of point-of-view. Not only do I have three narrators, they are not always in the same point of view. Sometimes, the characters speak in first person; other times, third. Why, these readers have asked, did I choose to tell my story this way?
I have usually answered that shifting between first and third person allows me to show more emotion in certain times and to pull back and give greater perspective in others. But the thing I have not said, and which has come to me slowly as I later thought more about the question, is how much of this decision was not thought out but intuitive. Much of my thinking comes at the rewriting stage, but even then I didn’t give much thought to the switches between first person and third because…it’s what I heard when I first started writing each chapter. It’s simply how the chapters rolled out.
And while they rolled out over time, I left them in the voice I heard them in originally, save for one. That one chapter became confusing because I switched point of view within the chapter itself, from first to third. I had to choose one. (I chose third.) It’s a chapter that shows people trying to bridge their differences and, in a way, first person takes a side, but I never considered that until writing this essay. I just felt third worked better. The decision was based on my gut. But it’s also true when I analyze the chapter that first person gives one character greater power in this moment when two are trying to offer olive branches to each other.
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Most often, I trust the intuitive decisions I make as a writer. When I wrestle through a rewrite—checking facts, line editing, addressing questions from my editor on character motivation, for instance—I see where the web of intuition fails and where I must apply myself. And I do. But that initial burst of inspiration, that voice that I heard, is also to be protected. That gut instinct is—for me—often right. There’s heart in that voice, there’s real emotion there, and I want that essence to stay as much as possible.
It’s not always easy to answer craft questions when the writing—for me—takes decades. I don’t remember every detail. One book took 25 years; the other, which overlapped, around 27-28. I’ve lost count of the years. But I’ve been writing about these characters, in some fashion, for half my life, and as I hear a line or voice, I know if it’s true or forced. I hit the keys and what comes out is either first person or third and that decision doesn’t quite seem or feel like a decision. It’s just there.
I see my novel as a weave, perhaps a dance. A chorus. Three narrators, shifting points of view, stories converted into chapters, chapters that started as chapters. While only a few readers and reviewers have commented on the shifts or use of point of view, almost all of them have commented on the emotion in the story, on how it hits home. I don’t think the reaction would have been the same in this novel of loss, resilience, reconnection, and hope if readers had been steeped in one character’s story, or stuck with that character in only first person. In that way, I’ve lucked out to have had the right initial instinct, and to have had an editor who let me tell the novel my way. I also lucked out in having an editor who, during rewrites, pointed out concerns and also patiently addressed a tangle in the opening of the book.
The hardest part of the editorial process is knowing when to trust myself. My editor said several times, “It’s your story.” He helped me make it better, and stronger, with his questions and comments. But there were moments when I knew I should leave a few things as they were. It’s a hard thing, learning when to stick to your guns or to trust yourself as a writer, especially if your decisions come in part from inspired moments. But every writer must. There is a lot of talk in writing circles about taking editorial advice. A writer must do that, too. But that is a tricky balance, learning when not to take editorial advice and to let one’s story become and rise in the way the author envisions, or hears.
I don’t hear the characters in my novel anymore. They’re off now into the world; their story is complete. It took an age to write. Parting is difficult and yet not. I did my best by them, and I let them speak.
Caitlin Hamilton Summie earned an MFA with Distinction from Colorado State University, and her short stories have been published in Beloit Fiction Journal, Wisconsin Review, Puerto del Sol, JMWW, Mud Season Review, Belmont Story Review, Hypertext Magazine, and more. Her story collection, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts (Fomite Press), won the fourth annual Phillip H. McMath Book Award, Silver in the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award for Short Stories, and was a Pulpwood Queen Book Club Bonus Book. Her debut novel, Geographies of the Heart, inspired by three stories in her collection, was published by Fomite Press in January 2022. She spent many years in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado before settling with her family in Knoxville, Tennessee. She co-owns the book marketing firm, Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, founded in 2003. Find her online at caitlinhamiltonsummie.com.