Thursday, October 9, 2014

Audacious Literary Technique

by Annabeth Leong

You decide to go for it and write about second person. Other people have covered first person and third person very well already, and you've got a few things to say about second person. At least, you have a few forthcoming stories that you wrote using that point of view.

Second person is undoubtedly a gamble. Some of that is because it can come off pretentious and irritating—as Jeremy Edwards said in the comments, people will often assume you're trying to pull off an Audacious Literary Technique, and that you're the sort of jerk who shows off habitually. Many editors and publishers don't like it either. Now that you're editing an anthology too, you understand. You got a few submissions written in second person that read like too-personal fantasies, the "you" too uncomfortably intimate for your admittedly prickly taste.

That intimacy, though—that's where you think the real gamble lies. You think about the way you talk to friends. Your speech is peppered with a "you" that is meant to mean "I," and that you are secretly hoping will come to mean "we." You take a sip of coffee, squint, then say, "You know how it is when you..." Or you quote Bukowski and say, "You get so alone at times that it just makes sense." Writing in second person is audacious, but that's because it's an invitation, a bid for affection. You are hoping that the reader really is like you, that the reader will accept the intimate voice you use when talking to yourself. You are speaking the language one part of yourself uses with another, and baring that to the world.

The danger, of course, is that the reader will reject you. A story might begin, "You run away for the first time when you're not even old enough to drive," and the reader might think, "I've never run away from anything!" You might write, "You are a girl on the beach under the moon," and the reader might say, "No, I'm not." Then the reader might stop listening to you. When you write in second person, you are hoping the reader will come into a private place with you, but you run the risk that the reader will think you are commanding rather than inviting, dictating rather than describing.

You don't mean to order the reader to be a certain way or to think and feel certain things. Really, you are hoping you can describe the way you are and the way you think and feel, and that this will truly turn out to be universal. You have always been fascinated by things you can never access—what people say about you when you aren't there, the innermost thoughts of others. When you write in second person, you overturn that. You elide those forbidden spaces and boldly declare they are no different from your own hidden corners. That is audacious. It is probably false, but you can't help hoping it is true. You can't help writing in second person from time to time.

Lately, you've had another reason to write in second person. You have been playing with gender, trying to find ways to write erotica that feels deep and intimate but affords privacy to the details of the body. The asshole is helpful when you write this way—everyone has one. It is terribly intimate and sensual, but it manages this while being universal, egalitarian. For some reason, when you write in first person avoiding gender, your work reads to you as feminine still. It is that "you" voice—the voice of one part of yourself talking to another, as you said before—that helps you escape the shape and role you have been given. When you talk to yourself, you say "you," and there is something genderless about that. Second person writing has been a powerful tool for this exploration.

You should admit that sometimes you cheat when you write in second person. In those cases, you are really writing in first person, but you've set it up a bit like a script. The first person narrator is talking to someone, and calling that someone "you." You have a couple stories like this that are coming out soon, and they were interesting writing exercises, but you think now that they don't have the same weird intensity of the true second person.

The true second person is a performance of the division of self. You are not really a single entity—no one is. Most of the time, you go through life pretending that you are unified when you are so far from being so. You suffer conflicting desires, foggy memories, likes and dislikes that don't make sense together. Sometimes it feels as if you are multiple souls riding one body. Still, most of the time, you say "I," as if you are coherent.

The second person at its best is an admission of the fundamental incoherence of being. You admit that you talk to yourself, but you also admit that you are fragmented. You beg others to join you with a sort of desperation that can be mistaken for arrogance. This is too heady a mix for most stories, but there are some that demand it.

As a writer, the great fear is always rejection, lack of understanding. You go out of your way to put words to how you see and feel things, and then you quake, worrying that others will tell you the world isn't like that at all. Second person doubles down on all this. You risk more, but maybe you tell a little more of the truth. When this private voice speaks in your head, it seems essential and authoritative. Sometimes, you think it is the voice of your real self, something deeper and more honest than the being that uses "I."

13 comments:

  1. NOW I understand second person, Annabeth.

    Brilliant!

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    1. Thank you! I understand it a lot better after writing this essay. What I've gotten out of being involved in The Grip is incalculably valuable. I'll never stop being glad you invited me here.

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  2. Annebeth:
    You are really good at his. You have made some interesting insights you never consider when you think about writing second person. I like this:

    The second person at its best is an admission of the fundamental incoherence of being. You admit that you talk to yourself, but you also admit that you are fragmented. You beg others to join you with a sort of desperation that can be mistaken for arrogance. This is too heady a mix for most stories, but there are some that demand it.

    I talk to myself all the time and use 'you' for degrading something dumb I've done. (You idiot) I think I'm dodging ownership when I do that.

    Thanks again for sharing your insight

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    1. Spencer, I'm glad you liked this! I've observed the same thing about talking to myself, though I have multiple voices for it. I have the "you idiot" voice, too, but I also coax myself with "you." ("Come on, honey. You can do this.") I realized at some point that writing in second person accesses this dynamic for me and brings out voices that aren't the same as the ones I use when writing first person.

      I'm really interested in internal systems and ideas about parts of ourselves. There is a psychological theory called "Internal Family Systems" that certainly influenced my thoughts about second person—it's a type of counseling that treats a single person with techniques used to sort out family dynamics. The idea of the self talking to the self is very evocative to me. As I said above, it's way too much for most stories, but sometimes can be very fascinating.

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  3. Wow, what a brilliant analysis, insightful exploration, and successfully intimate testimony. Anyone inclined to dismiss the second-person POV should read this! (Anyone who likes the second-person POV, too.)

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    1. Jeremy, thank you, and a hat tip to you for giving me a title for this. :) I have read many stories and creative nonfiction pieces in second person, but I haven't made it through a whole book written that way. Sometime, I should check out the book you linked a few days back.

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    2. I was very honored to see myself in the title!

      I haven't actually read Bright Lights, Big City (not my kind of thing), but judging from its phenomenal success in the mid-1980s marketplace, I guess a lot of readers must have found its approach engaging and effective.

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  4. Witty and well-done. I still can't write in it, but your essay was persuasive about how sometimes, for some writers, it's the perfect choice.

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  5. Jeez, Annabeth-

    The brilliance of this assessment is only surpassed by the fact that you've written it quite effectively in second person. Great example of adaptability.

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    1. Thanks so much, and I'm so glad you recovered!

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  6. Great explanation, Annabeth. "You" seems to me to be a greatly misunderstood but amazingly flexible pronoun in English. That single syllable (as subject) translates into most European languages as four pronouns (formal you singular, formal you plural, familiar you singular, familiar you plural). PLUS you in English can also be an object. (Did you do this because of what was done to you?) Your post shows it off brilliantly.

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    1. Thank you! I was thinking about you singular vs you plural when I was writing this, but wound up not getting into it. There's still plenty left to explore!

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