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We Real Cool
Storytelling from the collective voice
*The pool players. Seven at the Golden Shovel. We real cool. We / Left school. We / Lurk late. We / Strike straight. We / Sing sin. We / Thin gin. We / Jazz June. We / Die soon. ~Gwendolyn Brooks
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Today I’d like to talk a bit about one of my favorite literary points of view, the first person plural (with thanks to Kim Magowan for suggesting the topic). I love this point of view because of the kind of story it allows me to tell. And it’s taken off in popularity among flash writers who love to play and innovate with all aspects of literary expression.
Right off the bat, the “we” point of view story sounds different from other stories. Readers are not prepared for it. They are tuned in to more traditional narratives, told from the first person singular or third person. So immediately, we’re subverting expectations, creating something that feels slightly unsettling. That’s a good thing!
This point of view is a challenge to pull off. How to write with vivid, alive specificity, for instance, when there are no individuals? How to “characterize” a group? It’s easy to fall into the trap of abstraction and generalization. The “we” point of view can come across as a gimmick unless it is organic to the story being told.
Consider some situations or collectives that lend themselves well to the first person plural POV:
A group experiencing an overwhelming event or tragedy
Employees in strange, interesting or awful jobs
A group who is observing and/or judging an individual
An angry mob
A rapturous crowd
Those who share hardship, prejudice, bigotry, injustice
The underdogs. The undervalued and unappreciated. Us vs. Them
A group in conflict with another group or with society
A clique, the popular kids, the top dogs
Siblings / Families (I feel like siblings in large families especially have their own unique subcultures, language, rituals, etc.)
Children / Teens coming-of-age
Clubs / Societies / Sports Teams
Cult members. A collective under the spell of a charismatic leader.
What can this point of view especially “do” for our storytelling? It is a means of giving voice to shared experiences, common struggles and pains. It’s an opportunity to explore group dynamics, to view life through the lens of a group that is inherently compelling. Consider what behavior “groupthink” gives rise to. What happens when no individual can take blame or credit? We can explore what happens when individuality is erased. We can address Big Issues. Let’s look at some examples:
Girlhood / Young Womanhood / Womanhood / Old Womanhood
“Swimming Upstream” by Amy Barnes in Five South “We’re lucky because they can’t see us anymore. No one can. Our protruding bellies are visible only to us. We can see our babies swimming under the film and our filmy skin, little schools of baby fish, at school, swimming through the B Hallway and gym class and lunch and study hall where we study biology books with charts and timelines.”
“We, Moons” by Leesa Cross Smith in Oxford American “We want to be seen. We search our breasts for lumps so our breasts won’t kill us, our cervices for tumors. We scan our bodies for poison, never knowing. We feed our babies with these bodies and offer our bodies to the men we desire and the men take and take and take and we give and give and give. We are handmaidens and helpmeets and neither of those things. We are created in the image of a God who can be both man or woman or neither. No empty vessels; we are achingly full, spilling over. And when we die, our souls pour out like water.”
“The Mermaids Grow Old” by Kara Oakleaf in Pithead Chapel “Our hair, still long but the color of a dank storm sky, our skin ghostly pale. Even our breasts have shriveled and show wrinkles, and we’ve begun to wonder why we ever needed these cracked-open clamshells to conceal them in the first place. If we dress at all anymore, we prefer to wrap ourselves in swaths of seaweed, covering our stomachs where the skin goes soft and spills over that secret spot at our hips where we fade into scales.”
Creative Nonfiction (often coming-of-age, families, siblings, collective trauma or hardship or a particular cultural background)
“Everyone Loves to Flicker the Electric Jesus” by Melissa Saggerer in JMWW “Eyes closed, in a circle, we whisper into each other’s ears, the hot breath of compliments shivering down our spines, some saying earnest remarks, others earnestly saying, you have a great ass, as we move to the next nape of neck, enjoying bestowing flattery without risk, without response.”
“Undertow” by Tara Stillions Whitehead in X-Ray Lit “There were boys whose names we couldn’t share. Boys whose names we’d seen taped inside other girls’ lockers. Boys whose hips were like rip tides. Boys with thirsty eyes. Boys in beach stairwells and stolen cars. Boys in bathroom stalls above the fire pits at Coyote, behind the air hockey tables in Mr. Peabody’s.”
Ghost Stories (gangs of ghosts collectively haunting, sometimes with a bone to pick, a score to settle, grievances to air, group pain, they might have died together)
“A Haunting” by Ben Black in Wigleaf “So when the maid is there we keep our distance, we tread lightly, afraid to catch her notice, afraid to unite those three against us, afraid they'll all turn toward us at the same time and catch us in the hot, wet prisons of their cavernous eyes.”
“Come, Come” by Kim Magowan in New Flash Fiction Review “We hear her upstairs, we hear her kiss him goodbye, we hear the clank of the keys in her pocket, we hear her handle them, like worry beads.”
Collectives in the Workplace (Us vs. the Boss, Us vs. the Customers, shitty jobs endured together, how jobs often rob us of our individuality, etc.)
“A Brief Natural History of the Girls in the Office” by Sarah Freligh in Milk Candy Review “Later on, the potluck lunches together in the breakroom where we learned to like Inez’s potato salad with its pucker of onion, Melinda’s tuna noodle casserole crusted with Saltines, the shortbread cookies Judy made from a recipe that was willed to her by her Scots grandmother.”
Collectives as Observer / Judge (through their own, often unreliable, collective lens)
“We All Know About Margo” by Megan Pillow in Smokelong Quarterly “Margo, who wrote a poem about butterflies that won a Highlights contest in second grade, Margo, who has watched Mamma Mia seventeen times and knows all the words, Margo who always has money to lend when somebody needs it…” Margo is a heartbreaking character, seen and judged and objectified only through the eyes of the boys who lust after her.
“We Wonder” by Yasmina Din Madden in New Flash Fiction Review “We wonder why the man across the street doesn’t have a wife or a girlfriend. A husband or a boyfriend. We don’t know grown men who don’t come in a pair and we are suspicious. One of us pays three dollars to check the sex offender registry for our neighborhood. We are sure he has offended. Why else would he be alone at his age?”
Friendships (the poignancy of shared joys and sorrows, worries, memories)
“Patrick’s” by Timothy Boudreau in Leon Literary Review “We share our fears about getting older. “This pain in my side,” we say, “I can’t eat dairy anymore at all,” we say, “you know Sister’s back thing turned out to be serious, it may be malignant.” We worry about mowing the lawn, painting the porch, Saturday morning trips to the Post Office.”
Shared Struggle / Sadness / Pain / Trauma / Bigotry
“Coal and Glitter” by łucasz Drobnik in Had “We are the rainbow plague, the worst this land has suffered. Worse than town-slaughtering troops. Worse than child-raping priests. Worse than protester-strangling police. Worse even than neighbours setting a barn ablaze.”
“Bite” by K.B. Carle in Passages North “We aim at those who tell us to hush. At those who tell us to be good little girls. Pretty little girls. Silent and still little girls.”
“To the Shortage of Lifeguards that Will Live in this Rill” by Pat Foran in Pithead Chapel “Some of us now not-parents, we got to thinking…This Shortage of Lifeguards, it must be going through a lot. It’s seen things, we figured. It needs nurturing, we believed. Parenting.”
I’d love to see more workplace flashes out in the world and first person plural is a perfect workplace point of view! Think of some job you’ve held. Maybe your first job. Or your worst job. Think of the particular community that forms, the bonds, or rivalries, that happen in the workplace. How people behave under stress. The shared annoyance with a boss or customers. Workplaces often form their own bizarre traditions and subcultures. Maybe you had a highly stressful or physically taxing job. Maybe expectations were ridiculous. Were you ridiculously underpaid? Did you have to wear a uniform or worse…a costume?
Begin just by writing sentence after sentence of what “we” did in the workplace. Be very specific. Give readers things to see, hear, smell, etc. Maybe throw a title up at the top to get you going. I’m thinking of something along the lines of Stewart O’Nan’s novella, Last Night at the Lobster (about employees of a Red Lobster restaurant).
Go deeper into the “dream” of a past workplace, fictionalizing and embellishing if you wish. Free write your way into the unexpected. Go wild with it. Maybe the story and details become absurd and surreal. Let them. Inject some humor. Or pathos. Ratchet up the conflict. But give it all to us through the collective lens of the employees. As always, let the story go where it wants to go.
HUGE thanks to all the folks on Twitter, especially Kim Magowan, who recommended many of these stories! I read all of these and you should too. They’re glorious examples of the haunting strangeness and beauty of the collective point of view.
“New Shadows” by Kaj Tanaka in The Masters Review
“Here” by Tommy Dean in New World Writing
“We Sing with Our Mouths Closed” by Jad Josey in Passages North
“The Day the Birds Came” by Kyra Kondis in Pithead Chapel
“Life Cycle” by Joshua Jones in Matchbook
“Don’t Worry, This Won’t Last All Year” by Kelsey Francis in Porcupine Literary
“Haints” by Colleen Kearney Rich in KYSO Flash
“Us Girls at Our Boys’ Graduation” by Jennifer Todhunter in Twin Pies Literary
“15 Days Till Daycare” by Roberta Beary in 100 word story
“Once a Fisherman” by Caroljean Gavin in Pithead Chapel
“Miracles” by Lucy Corin in Tin House Flash Friday
“B is for Balls” by Kara Vernor in Okay Donkey
“Heat Dome” by Kaitlyn Teer in Electric Literature
“In Dead Waters” by Sarah Arantza Amador in Flashback Fiction
“When We Were Young” by Christopher M. Drew in Trampset
“We’re Waiting to Hear Our Names” by Tara Isabel Zambrano in Vol. 1 Brooklyn
“We Sat Like That All Year” by Barbara Diggs in (mac)ro(mic)
“Ashore” by Abby Manzella in Five South
“Commital” by Sharon Telfer in Flash Flood
“No-See-Ums” by Elizabeth Matthews in Spelk
“Moles” by Kellie Rankey in The Normal School
BEFORE YOU GO….WRITE WITH US ON RETREAT IN 2023!
I'll be back in 2023 live teaching / mentoring for Nancy’s Stohlman’s amazing Open Your Art writing retreats! Registration is open now and these fill quickly. Come away feeling connected, energized, & inspired. Go HERE for more information. We are returning in 2023 to three beautiful, inspiring venues in France (June 27th - July 3rd), Grand Lake, Colorado (August 15th - 20th), and Iceland (October 25th-29th).
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