A few days ago, to my immense pleasure, I found two copies of the new issue of Third Coast in the mailbox, with my story “Upper Middle Class Houses” inside. I wish that happened in the mail more often. Because dear god there is almost no better feeling in the world than seeing your name in a table of contents! Is this somehow related to a need for approval? Affirmation by a third party who is not your mother that you are good at writing? Yes, of course, yes, that’s part of it. All writers, unless you are some impermeable bastion of self-confidence, need a little boost sometimes, a reminder that all that hard work and pouring out of emotion and soul-poking exploration of what it really means to be human is worth it. But also, more than that, it is the thrill of knowing people you have never met will be reading this thing you put together out of words, and that maybe, just maybe, those words will connect with that stranger in some way, elicit some emotion, however brief, and make them see some small facet of life anew for a moment.
And what a wonderful thing it is to be a part of that.
New-publication-gushing aside, this is a topic I’ll return to at some point (i.e. Why the Fuck We Write), but back to my original purpose of writing this post: half-brained musings on the second person point of view. Exciting, I know.
This story in Third Coast is one of those that appeared unexpectedly when I was trying to write about something else. Specifically, when I was trying to finish my thesis. But when a story comes knocking of its own accord, without you having to stand outside the door pounding and begging and sleeping on the stoop in the freezing rain, you have to answer it. And to my surprise, this story demanded to be in second person. That’s the only way it would exist, the only way the voice felt right. I wrote it entirely in the span of one nearly sleepless night, and I remember standing on my balcony in the snow (I was living in Nashville at the time, not New Orleans) with headphones and a cigarette, bouncing up and down on my toes with anxious energy, trying to re-write the story into first person or third person and failing. Finally, I gave in. I stopped resisting the second person and just went with it. And hey, it apparently worked. Possibly, it was a fluke. But I’m going to pretend otherwise.
The big reason I resisted second person so strongly is because of the stigma it has. Lots of people hate second person. Some of them won’t even read past the first “you,” because they know the second person is going to ruin the story for them. Even the editor at Third Coast said in his initial email to me that he usually found second person off-putting. Complaints against it include: jarring, distracting, pushy, false, hard to read. It calls attention to itself by addressing the reader. It can distance the reader too much by pushing outside the page instead of pulling in. It can also alternately pull the reader in too much, to the point that the reader gets frustrated by all the things the story is trying to tell her she thinks, wants, feels.
But I think that most second person narratives aren’t actually trying to go, HEY READER! THIS IS ABOUT YOU (Gah, narcissists). Unless you’re reading a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. Or Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood: A Novel? In which case, I do believe all the questions are directed at you, the reader, cause that’s kind of the whole point of it. (But it’s interrogative (obviously) and not imperative, so it escapes most of the second person’s traps.) Instead, the “you” in most second person narratives is not the reader, but some specific character the author has created that is, for some reason, being addressed or watched from outside his/herself. When I read stories in the second person, it usually seems to me to have one of these four effects:
- almost epistolary, with the narrator addressing some specific “you” character who is not the reader (Kevin Wilson‘s “The Choir Director Affair”)
- How-to directions, as in Lorrie Moore’s Self Help, (a form that has by this point been way over-done and yet still no one has done it better than Moore did in 1985)
- the narrator talking to either its younger self or future self (if in past tense or future tense, respectively), or
- an out-of-body effect, especially in present tense, of the narrator watching himself from a distance because of some psychological or emotional dissonance, as in “Out of Body,” the second person section of Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. In her contributor note in Best American Short Stories 2011, Egan says about her use of second person in “Out of Body,” “people tend to slip into the second person when discussing emotional things, to distance themselves from those emotions.”
Those are, of course, not the only four possibilities for second person. They’re just four that I’ve noticed frequently, and I think some of the most successful applications of second person narration (except the how-to directions–that one, by this point, has been nearly done to death). Why is this? Because, like any point of view or any choice in a short story, it has to have a reason, and in the case of these applications I just listed, it does. That’s one of the most important lessons my former professor Tony Earley pounded (lovingly) into my head: Everything for a reason. If it doesn’t play a specific role in the story, if it’s not doing something important, if it’s just there to be kinda weird and quirky and experimental and that’s all, TAKE IT OUT. That is where I think a lot of second person stories and experimental writing fail. I love experimentation, but only if it has some reason for being that grows organically from the story. Otherwise, as the great Tony repeatedly said, it betrays an authorial intrusion. You can suddenly see the author sticking his hand in and messing with stuff, and suddenly the high-wire that is suspension of disbelief snaps, and down the reader plummets.
Second person will never be as useful or all-purpose as first or third person. It has a niche, for sure, and it is really hard to write well even when it does have an organic reason for being part of the story. But, I’ve got to say, I like it. I may never use it again in my own writing, it may be a one-time appearance in the bibliography of Claire, but I just wanted to give it a little love and point out the ways that it can be a very effective narrative technique, if chosen wisely and done carefully. The aforementioned Tony Earley, when I brought this story to workshop about two weeks before my thesis was due, payed me one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever received when he altered his opinion on second person from strident disapproval to interested skepticism after reading my story, and then demanded that I include it in my thesis. Not that I’m anywhere near the caliber of Lorrie Moore or Jennifer Egan (or David Foster Wallace or Italo Calvino or William Faulkner, all of whom also wrote in the second person at some point or another), but still, it’s pretty darn cool to have pulled it off.
And now that I’ve sufficiently made my arm sore with all this patting myself on the back, I’m done. So go support the literary arts and buy yourself a copy of this issue of Third Coast for only $9 (or subscribe for a year for $16), and enjoy my second person story about a voyeuristic babysitter, homemade porn, and some naked kids. (Surprisingly, not the weirdest thing I’ve ever written.)
Oh wait, one more thing: science agrees with me. Booyah.