From the Front Lines: When should an author write in the second person?

It's a tricky POV. How do you know when it's right for your work?

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It happens just like this: You are sitting at your keyboard, a lot intimidated by the story or essay you want to write next. You get up, pat the dog, water the plants, stare at the laundry pile. You open the refrigerator, wonder if you can cook something just complicated enough to suck up some time, but not too complicated – you don’t want the whole day to slip by before you’ve laid some words down.

You can’t settle, so after air-conditioning the kitchen with your refrigerator, you come back to your desk and just randomly start typing. You’re panicking, so your brain does something along these lines:

Fzzzt.

Pop!

Sizzle.

And then it shows some mid-channel television fuzz a la the mid-’80s, and then, because you really have to get cracking or the thing will never get written, you say to yourself, “Oh, fork it,” and you start telling the story from second-person point of view, just to try and give it a little zhuzz.

Or it happens like this: You are dared, by a well-meaning friend, to write a short story in second-person POV in the next 24 hours.

By now you will have figured out where this is going. We’re going to spend some time poking around the second-person point of view this month, mostly because it’s been on my list to write ever since I started writing this column, and, like the writer at the beginning of this little narrative (who is, obviously, totally fictional), I have come to realize that it is never going to happen if I don’t just knuckle down and do it.

 

By the time you read this, I will have spent the better part of five years, as long as I’ve been editing for Tahoma Literary Review, musing over why second person works in some places and why it doesn’t work in, well, most places. As a writer, I love the challenge it presents, but I almost never set myself to that challenge because (editor hat on now) it’s hard to find a narrative that demands this point of view.

What do I mean by this? Well, put it this way: I think unique narratives that can only be accessible if you force the reader into the narrator’s shoes can demand second person. I’m thinking of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City here, a book that opens on a bar scene with the narrator so full of snow he doesn’t know which way is up. I once dated a guy who could access this point of view in intimate fashion, but I definitely wouldn’t want to be him. McInerney’s book helped me to see what it might be like.

Another reason writers might strive for second-person point of view? They’re looking for immediacy. One example that springs readily to mind is, of course, the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of YA/middle-grade books. What more thrilling way for a kid to escape her suburban California existence than to set herself firmly in the boots of an explorer in Bangladesh or hot on the trails of a thief? (Again, I speak in total theoreticals.) Middle school a blur? Perhaps more easily accessible to you might be Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which pulls at the meta strings, opening with a line that imagines you, the reader, settling down to read Calvino’s latest novel. Boom. You’re hooked because you’re in the book, and we all know that folks love reading about themselves.

There’s another facet to this intimacy: In epistolary novels, where the narrator is either spending all of her time awash in “Dear Diary” or writing letters to someone else, there’s an obvious push for “you” and a handy case of voyeurism. Writer Camille Griep’s first novel, Letters to Zell, uses it, but that book comprises entirely letters: The characters are all writing to each other, so the letter-writer is never alone. Again, here, too, the narrative demands it, and, actually, it wouldn’t really feel right without the “you” construct. “I snuck the second-person in,” Griep told me, sounding guilty for the subversiveness.

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But I think there’s another reason writers try out the “you” form. Because it’s so hard to execute if you’re not, as copywriter Elisa Doucette puts it, writing sales copy that begs you to “wait, there’s more!,” there’s an innate challenge in trying it out, seeing if it works. And I think there’s something really joyful in answering the call to write with something totally wacky, something you may have never tried out before.

And that’s where most writers get stuck when answering the question of when and why they might use second-person narration. A lot of writers who answered my call for “why” (yes! Social media was one of the ways I distracted myself during my long march back to my desk, whyever do you ask?) said they didn’t know when it would pop up in their work. Memoirist Tabitha Blankenbiller said, in the comment equivalent of a shrug, “[I use it when] it feels right.” A lot of other writers echoed her.

There is something really magical about the whole “when it feels right” aspect of nailing a point of view. It ties into the story we tell ourselves about writing, that sometimes great characters just come to us. That dialogue sometimes spills out of them. That these characters who are speaking oh-so-well sometimes do things all by themselves to advance the plot. But still, second person niggles at me. Surely there’s something more to it than just ¯\_(«Ä)_/¯.

Writer and teacher Sean Bernard has an answer. He thinks second-person narration is especially handy when a narrator might be particularly inaccessible in another voice. “Sometimes,” he told me, “you have an obnoxious character who might be really whiny in a first-person or a third-person voice. But then you can kind of ‘hide’ them behind a ‘you,’ because, well, then it’s the reader who’s the ‘you.’ And that makes the character easier to read, maybe.”

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We’re right back to accessibility, I think.

I’ve told a lot of people that I think we really only read for two reasons: First, to get to know someone new. Second, so we don’t feel so alone. Ultimately, I think second-person narrative can answer both of these desires in a reader. And if the answer to how we get there – on a dare; out of sheer desperation; because the narrative demands it; because your protagonist is a jackhat – is a little nebulous, I think that’s OK, too.

 

—Yi Shun Lai teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire Universities. Her book Pin Ups is forthcoming from Homebound Press in September. Visit her at thegooddirt.org.

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