“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.