Where do we stand in relation to our stories?
A story is not a static, two-dimensional thing. It’s shaped by our point of view, which is constantly evolving as we move through our lives. So how do we choose a vantage point from which to tell a story, and how does that choice affect the way we tell it?
As the narrator of my own story, should I speak as the person at the center of the action, or as the person who looks back and writes about it later?
And it’s even more complicated than that. The me who might have looked back in hindsight three years after an event has a different perspective than the me who is twenty years down the line. Whose interpretation gets to rule the narrative?
I recently wrote two short pieces about a particular time in my late twenties when I was an insecurely housed single mother in 90s London.
The first piece, which I shared a couple of weeks ago, is told in hindsight from the perspective of my present-day self. From the safe distance of several decades I can reflect not only on what life was like as a young, impoverished lone parent, but what that experience means to me now. Focusing on my friendship with George, a fellow single mum from those years with whom I am still close, the essay is an ode to the human connections that sustain us in challenging times. It is a tale not only of hardship but of survival and overcoming.
In the short piece below, I took a different tack on that same period. This time, as narrator I step all the way into the perspective of my 28-year-old self. There’s no reflective distance, no processed meaning-making. This character is in the throes of a chaotic life. She’s swinging from one visceral moment to the next and taking us along for the ride as the drama unfolds.
Here, read it and see what you think.
We are not homeless. We are insecurely housed. But we are not homeless.
My daughter and I live at 274B Westbourne Park Road. At least, we live here for now.
We were lucky to get this flat. It opened up at the exact same time as I got notice to vacate the last place after only 12 weeks. It needed a damn good cleaning before we could move in. They always do, because the long-term tenants typically stay for life, which means they tend to die in place and leave a big mess behind them. Our short-life housing co-op has an arrangement with the council that lets our members move into the derelict flats as-is and live there for low rent as long as we promise to leave without a fuss each time a property comes up for refurbishment. It’s basically legalized squatting. As the co-op’s treasurer, I collect rents from all our members and keep track of who owes what, for which I get a 10 per cent reduction on my own rent. I like having an official role in the co-op. It makes me feel needed and safe. This is where the treasurer lives.
At some point the council will green-light this flat to be stripped back and outfitted with a new fridge and stove, fresh paint, carpet and lino for the next permanent tenant, and we’ll be out. The co-op manager thinks we should get a good long run in this place — maybe as long as eighteen months. Until then, it is our home. For at least the next year, we are not homeless.
It’s a good home for us, a bright and airy 16 x 16 studio flat that was once the main reception room of this four-story Georgian townhouse. This room serves as our shared bedroom, living room, dining room, and my sewing workshop, all in one. It’s a bit cramped, but the bay window and high ceiling make it feel fancy. More like a real home. And there’s a separate kitchen, with a door that I can close for privacy. I hang out in there in the evening after putting Sydney to bed.
A woman named Mina lives downstairs with her two little boys. Every morning she cooks spicy meat and onions, sending greasy, pungent steam wafting up through the cracks between the bare floorboards. Mina stands in the tiny paved garden out back, chucking pebbles at my kitchen window to get my attention. Hey! Your little girl is too loud when she runs on the floor. You need to get her to be more quiet. I scowl at this. Mina is a mother. She should know it’s impossible to expect a three year old to tiptoe around everywhere. Especially in her own home. My daughter runs because she is happy.
I want it to feel like our very own place, so I paint it in fun colors. Hot pink in the bathroom, robin’s egg blue in the kitchen, a barcode of multicolored stripes above the fireplace. Worth taking the time to paint.
Worth taking the time, too, to make a makeshift mini-bedroom for Sydney in the corner of the main room. Worth buying her a loft bed with a ladder, and creating a little playroom underneath with all her toys. Worth sewing curtains to go around the bed, so that I can close her off from the outside world — and give myself some privacy in the single bed that doubles as our sofa during the day — when I tuck her in for the night. Time to climb the wooden hill to Bedfordshire!
It’s a busy road, Westbourne Park, and the number 23 bus stops right in front, its brakes squealing, engine grinding, from early morning to well past midnight. On one our first nights in this flat, I dreamed that my bed was in the street, and the curb was my pillow. All night long I rolled over this way and that to make way for the tourists and commuters tramping on and off the back of the red Routemaster. It’s noisy here, alright, but I’m used to it now. That’s what happens when it’s your home.
In the morning we walk hand in hand to Sydney’s nursery school, down the Portobello Road past the halal butcher and the Electric Cinema, past the flower stalls and the fruit and veg barrows whose vendors bellow out the day’s specials like auctioneers. THREE forapound strawberries lovely bitof strawberries threefora POUND!
Sydney’s friends come round for playdates. I dish up fish fingers and cheese tortellini on melamine plates. Funeka and I drink vinho verde out of Moroccan tea glasses at the tiny kitchen table and smoke roll-ups out the sash window while our girls watch The Little Mermaid again in the big room. We are home, and it feels good.
Five short months into our tenancy, I get the call I’ve been dreading. 274 Westbourne Park Road has made its way to the top of the refurb waitlist already. We have to be out in two weeks.
No, there’s nothing else available, the co-op manager says with a sympathetic frown. No, no idea when the next one will open up. Yeah, I can take over as treasurer.
No, the lady at the council office says, I can’t just give you a flat, you have to go on the housing registry and wait your turn.
No, I can’t put your name on the housing registry today. Come down here with your child and all your belongings on eviction day, and we’ll find you a room in a bed and breakfast while you make your way up the list. No, it won’t likely be in this area, could be anywhere in greater London.
No, having a three year old won’t make it go quicker — lots of people that need housing have got kids. Most of them, in fact. Probably looking at about two years.
Sorry, love, there’s nothing I can do for you. Because as of today, you’re not homeless.
“For however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable I.”
- Joan Didion
Me, Myself and Eye
How you choose to situate yourself as narrator in a personal essay or memoir is a creative choice, and no one approach is superior to the others. It depends on the point you want to make, the experience you want to create for your reader, and the relationship you’re looking to build with them.
In Tell It Slant1, an excellent craft book on writing creative nonfiction, the authors Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola have some good insight into the role of perspective in a story.
The minute you begin to impose form on experience — no matter how dutifully you try to remain faithful to history or the world — you’re immediately faced with a technical dilemma: How do you effectively frame this experience? What gets left outside the confines of this frame? Are some frames more “truthful” than others? And the way you decide to frame the world directly reflects the “I” and the “eye” that performs this act of construction.
Just as the details of the world and experience may be framed or constructed by a mediating “I”, so too is that “I” a fabrication for the purposes of the essay. We are not the same on the page as we are in real life, and we must be aware that the “I” is as much a tool — or a point of view or a character — that we manipulate for particular effects. The “I” on the page is really a fictional construction, reflecting certain parts of us, leaving others out, or exaggerating certain aspects for the purposes of the essay at hand.
Try this: One story, two perspectives
Choose a story from your memory bank to write about. I suggest you pick one that haunts you and feels like it won’t leave you alone; the more vivid and arresting, the better.
Set a timer for twenty minutes and write a scene from this story from the real-time perspective of the version of you who experienced it. Don’t put pressure on yourself to try to tell the whole tale; you can zoom in on a physical detail or your interior thoughts and feelings. The point is to immerse yourself in the perspective of your past self.
Next, reset your timer for another twenty minutes and approach the story from the perspective of your current self. (If you find it hard to shift gears, try taking a short break in between writing these two pieces. Let your expectations go, clear your mind, and allow the more recent point of view to emerge.) Notice what you want to focus on, and what no longer feels as important. What meaning do you make of this experience? What feelings do you have about it in retrospect? Now that you know how the story turns out, what lessons or gifts emerge from it? What does current you want to say about what happened then, and about what has happened since?
If you want to expand one of these exercises into a longer piece of writing, notice which approach calls to you more strongly, and why you think that is.
This piece first appeared in November 2022 on The Underwire, my Substack publication. You can get all my content by email as soon as it’s published by subscribing to The Underwire here!