“You knew you wanted to do it, but you’d never had the courage…:” Writing in the second person

For some people, it’s bungee-jumping. For others, it’s swimming with dolphins, getting a tattoo, or eating fugu.

What am I talking about?

The thing you’ve always wanted to do, but were too chicken to try.

For me, it’s writing in the second person. When it’s done well, it’s so, so compelling. The reader is naturally drawn into the narrative, as they are a part of it. But when it’s bad, it’s like a poor imitation of a Choose Your Own Adventure book (I loved them as a kid, by the way). I remember reading a book that teaches writing which suggested that only the most gifted of writers should attempt writing in the second person.

Over the last few months, the second person narrative has appeared on my radar quite a bit. And for the first time, it’s in non-fiction.

I’m a huge fan of Erika Dreifus’s blogs, and that led me to some of her other writing. Among her corpus of work are several interlocked true short stories about her (yikes!) mugging in Central Park.

(You can read them, too:

What really interested me about the stories was Dreifus’s handling of her misadventure. While the events actually happened to her, she writes them as if they happened to the reader. Whether this was intentional or serendipitous, she discovered a way of writing about a traumatic event that happened to her with greater objectivity.

My new POV

A couple months back, I wrote a very self-revelatory story. It was the kind of thing that is so embarrassing to myself that I can’t be at all objective about it. When I wrote piece, I thought it was completely unpublishable, but shared it at my writing group nonetheless.

Surprise! Several members of the group had a very strong reaction to it, not because it was exceptionally well-written (it wasn’t), but because they felt the feelings I portrayed were very universal. So, they encouraged me to revise it.

Struggling to handle material that was a little too close for comfort, I tried Dreifus’s technique and rewrote my story entirely in the second person. I’d describe it as highly therapeutic. I was able to laugh at my foibles and not take the behavior that elicited my negative response so personally. I have no idea if the story will ever make it to publication. But the process definitely gave me a new perspective on my behavior.

The process also gave me a bit more confidence in writing the second-person. Now, I’m looking for the right opportunity to use it again.

Have you read notable works in the second person? Have you ever tried to write in the second person? Share your experiences as a reader or a writer below.

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11 thoughts on ““You knew you wanted to do it, but you’d never had the courage…:” Writing in the second person

  1. So I stopped by your blog, as per usual, and I thought: What a great topic for a post! And then I started reading…and, well, I’m astonished and honored to be a part of it!

    [One small note: It wasn’t Central Park–really on the edge of Carl Schurz Park. Just to be fair to Central Park! And one other small note: The fourth essay in the sequence was originally written in second person as well, but I rewrote it to comply with one magazine’s guidelines, and that’s where the piece ended up.]

    More on the topic of voice/POV: I’ve realized that as comfortable as I am using first-person in commentaries (and in reviews, for that matter–much to the chagrin of some editors), I am quite uncomfortable using it in personal essays. Even in fiction, when I’m writing something grounded in personal experience–such as the “Quiet American” story in my collection–I can’t necessarily embrace the first-person POV.

    I look forward to following your journey with the piece you’ve described working on above.

    Best, Erika

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    • Thanks, so, so much for visiting and providing additional insights into your work!

      I can empathize with your discomfort with the first-person personal essay. I think personal essays are always hard to write — unless they are very superficial, and those are often the least interesting, anyways.

      The nature of the genre is that you’re exposing your private self. Often (although not so much in your specific case) you don’t come out in the best light. You’re voluntarily embarrassing yourself. And other times (like in your specific case), you’re revisiting an episode in your life that was hard to live through in the first place.

      Once the material is published, your readers know things about you that some of your relatives and neighbors don’t even know. It can creep you out.

      For a long time, I avoided writing personal essays altogether, and I took a break over the summer after the last one I wrote for Tablet.

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  2. (Here via Erika’s blog!)

    I did once write a second-person story, and even managed to get it published: http://necessaryfiction.com/stories/RebekahCurryInstructionsonLeavingtheCommunistParty

    I still have the earlier drafts in my files, and it didn’t start out with this POV; initially, I tried writing it in the form of an interview transcript. I then started writing it in short sections in third person, then switched to second and finally hit on the “instructional” format. It was very much an experiment, but I hope it was a successful one; I definitely think that it gave the story more immediacy.

    My only experience with second-person as a reader was when I tried picking up If on a winter’s night a traveler, which started out interesting and gradually became maddening (although that may have been intentional on Calvino’s part!). It did make me think about how the reader interacts with the text, though, as it felt a little strange for me to be positioned inside a narrative as a male character, particularly in relation to his attraction to a female character.

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    • I’m so glad you found your way here!

      I’m wondering if the 2nd person POV is harder to pull off in a novel format. The demands it puts on the reader (who has to fell included in the narrative) might be too challenging at great length. The only 2nd person POV novel I remember reading is the most famous example, Bright Lights, Big City. That was years and years ago, and I couldn’t finish it. Another one of those “not my taste” books, but I think it had more to do with the content than the structure.

      And thanks for sharing your story. Whew! It was intense, and I think that the “immediacy” (as you called it) brought by the POV definitely contributed to that.

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  3. Like you, I’m a fan of Erika Dreifus’s blog. I found her essays about her mugging to be compelling and immediate, but it wasn’t until I read your blog that it occurred to me that the immediacy could be a function of the POV. Something to think about.

    I’ve only written one story in the second person, and the POV wasn’t intentional–it was just the way the story presented itself to me. It’s making the rounds now, but it was rejected by one journal which was kind enough to tell me why they were passing on it, and one of the reasons was their dislike of second person. (The other reason was that they felt it was “more anecdotal than fiction”–I think that meant they thought I was writing about my own divorce, which would be a clever trick since I’ve never been married.) I wonder how many editors share this journal’s dislike of the second person POV and how many pieces as compelling as Erika’s essays might be declined simply because of that preference.

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    • Your editor wasn’t the only one with a prejudice against second person. I once asked an editor for whom I was writing (they’d requested a story on a certain topic, given me some plot points, etc.) which POV they wanted me to write in. They replied, “Just don’t write in second person.”

      The really funny part is that it never had occurred to me to do so. At the time, I’d written nothing longer than directions for an assignment in the second person. I think it’s not even in most people’s toolbox. Maybe that’s one reason why many editors despise it — they’ve seen too much of it done poorly due to lack of experience.

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      • And apparently some editors don’t have a problem with it. I submitted my second-person story to an online journal’s short story contest, and this evening I received an e-mail from them advising me that out of 201 entries, my story took second place. I guess there’s no way to know–all we can do is to write the best possible story using whatever POV fits it, and then we just take our chances.

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  4. Oh, so glad to see others finding this blog through mine (and thanks for saying so!). I agree with Becca K. both that 1) second person is harder to pull off in longer works and 2) LOTS of editors don’t like it. The “Quiet American” story I mentioned before received several rejections that expressed just that point.

    Regarding second-person stories that work–I always recommend Lorrie Moore’s SELF-HELP collection. Should have mentioned that earlier.

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