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Writing in Second Person: Atwood to Tolstoy

Update 15/12/2013

The following blog post was originally written as part of a call for short story submissions. The resulting anthology, You, Me & a Bit of We: A Celebration of Writing in First and Second Person, is now available. If you enjoy this blog post why not check out the paperback or Kindle edition of You, Me & a Bit of We? 

You, Me & a Bit of We is showcase of 42 stories written in either second, first or first person plural point-of-view. Through a selection of flash fiction and short stories, readers are invited to discover their favourite seat in a story. Is it front row centre, in the midst of a crowd, or from a more personal vantage point? Where second person thrusts the reader into an active role, first person offers experience through the eyes of an individual or group. Written by an international cast of authors, this collection includes a broad range of themes. There are tales of transition, conviction, lost love, grief, conflict, domestic strife, tragedy, second chances, and stories about letting go and moving on. There are worlds where it is rare to be sighted, skin tells a story, past lives haunt, deadly viruses and parasites threaten humanity, and death is personified. From the poignant to the fantastical, dark, witty and uplifting, each story in this anthology is original, thought provoking, and reflective of the versatility of perspective as a literary device.

View the full TABLE OF CONTENTS here.

____________________________

(Original post)

In light of our current callout for the You, Me & a Bit of We anthology, I thought it might be useful to discuss writing in the second person narrative, provide a few examples, and offer a general indication of what we are looking for in submissions.

Writing in the second person narrative is the use of the second person pronoun, you, to refer to the protagonist or other main character.  Such narratives either are written consistently in second person or include chapters, or long passages, of second person point-of-view.

Although relatively uncommon this literary device is deployed, to varying effect, in a number of works.  Margaret Atwood, Iain Banks, Italo Calvino, William Faulkner, Nathaniel Hawthorne, A. M. Jenkins, Jay McInerney, A. D. Miller, and Leo Tolstoy, are but a few who have dabbled in this technique.

Second person narratives require a strong suspension of disbelief as the writer invites the reader to become the character.  When handled well this method can quickly draw the reader in and lend a sense of urgency and excitement to a story.  An oft-quoted example of contemporary second person writing is the opening to Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, quoted here and followed by the opening to Complicity by Iain Banks.

“You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.  But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy.  You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head.”[i]

 “You hear the car after an hour and a half.  During that time you’ve been here in the darkness, sitting on the small telephone seat near the front door, waiting.  You only moved once, after half an hour, when you went back through the kitchen to check on the maid.”[ii]

These texts speak directly to the reader, instantly engaging them.  Other constructions include Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller.  This novel uniquely switches to second person in alternating chapters.  While the even numbered chapters tell a tale, the odd numbered chapters relay a reader’s efforts to read said tale.  It opens thus,

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice—they won’t hear you otherwise…”[iii]

A.M. Jenkins uses the second person to explore the depths of depression as the main character in Damage detaches himself from the grips of despair.  As readers, we witness this individual’s struggle through his own eyes, as he looks inward and outward.  The use of second person creates a powerful draw that would have been less effective had Jenkins simply written in first or third person.

“When you open your eyes, the joyless feeling has already crawled onto your chest.  The ceiling of your room presses you down into the mattress.  The air settles in your lungs so heavy that it’s almost too much trouble to breathe. You kind of remember having some bad dreams, but you can’t remember what they were. You just lie there, flat as the faded streak of afternoon sunlight that slants through the western window and impales your bed…Your eyes move, skimming the room, trying to grab hold of anything that will break the suction of the bed.”[iv]

A. D. Miller, in his moral thriller Snowdrops, also uses the second person in a number of short sections as his main character confesses a dark event from his past.

“You’re always saying that I never talk about my time in Moscow or about why I left.  You’re right, I’ve always made excuses, and soon you’ll understand why.  But you’ve gone on asking me, and for some reason lately I keep thinking about it—I can’t stop myself…you have a right to know all of it.”[v]

Margaret Atwood speaks directly to the reader, albeit briefly, in second person segments which frame her otherwise third person narrative.  The story opens instructing the reader “If you want a happy ending, try A.[vi]  She then continues the story about Mary and John in third person, giving different versions of how their life together could progress.  Near the end, she returns to second person in a section labelled ‘F’.

“If you think this is all too bourgeois, make John a revolutionary and Mary a counterespionage agent and see how far that gets you.  Remember, this is Canada.  You’ll still end up with A…You’ll have to face it, the endings are the same however you slice it.”[vii]

In another short story from the same collection, Atwood uses second person to guide readers through a rather ordinary kitchen scene. We are sumptuously told to butter, peanut butter, and honey our slice of bread and are reminded of the various kinds of bread available in our pantries.

“Some of the honey runs out onto your fingers and you lick it off.  It takes you about a minute to eat the bread. This bread happens to be brown, but there is also white…and a heel of rye…now going mouldy. Occasionally you make bread…something relaxing to do…”[viii]

Having lulled us with this pleasant, familiar scene, Atwood then goes for the twist, instructing us to now imagine a famine.

You are now lying on a thin mattress in a hot room…your sister, who is younger than you are, is in the room with you.  She is starving, her belly is bloated…The piece of bread is the bread you’ve been saving, for days it seems…Should you eat the piece of bread yourself?”[ix]

Atwood skilfully engages the reader in a moral dilemma, questioning whether or not the bread should be shared. The contrast between scenes is remarkable: how quickly the bread turns from a luxury we take for granted—even waste and play with—to a dire necessity with agonising complexities.  This short piece is all the more striking for Atwood’s use of the second person. As it sets the reader at its centre, the message becomes personal.

Nathaniel Hawthorne and William Faulkner also made notable use of the second person perspective. Hawthorne uses it in his chilling tale, The Haunted Mind, about spirits that inhabit the space between sleeping and waking worlds, while Faulkner—known for his skill at telling tales through multiple perspectives—uses it in parts of his southern gothic novel, Absalom, Absalom!  Consider the following selections.

“By a desperate effort, you start upright, breaking from a sort of conscious sleep, and gazing wildly round the bed, as if the fiends were anywhere but in your haunted mind…Your eye searches for whatever may remind you of the living world.  With eager minuteness, you take note of the table near the fireplace, the book with an ivory knife between its leaves…its image remains an instant in your mind’s eye, when darkness has swallowed the reality.”[x]

“But you were not listening, because you knew it all already, had learned, absorbed it already without the medium of speech somehow from having been born and living beside it, with it, as children will and do: so that what your father was saying did not tell you anything so much as it struck, word by word, the resonant strings of remembering.  You had been here before, seen these graves more than once in the rambling expeditions of boyhood…”[xi]

And lastly, Leo Tolstoy wrote one of his Sevastopol Sketches (December) in second person.  These three short stories (Sevastopol in December, Sevastopol in May, and Sevastopol in August) capture Tolstoy’s experiences of the Siege of Sevastopol (1854-1855) during the Crimean War and are said to have been the source for War and Peace.

“You choose the skiff nearest you, pick your way over the semi-decomposed carcass of a bay horse that is lying in the mud beside the vessel, and make your way to the tiller.  Now you have cast off, and are away from the shore.  Around you is the sea, sparkling now in the morning sun; in front of you an old seaman in camelhair coat…You listen to those oars, with their even beat, to the sounds of voices carried across the water towards you, and to the majestic resonance of the firing  in Sebastopol, which , it seems to you, is growing in intensity.”[xii]

There are, of course, numerous examples of second person writing and these are just a few pieces I find intriguing.  For our current project, You, Me and a Bit of We, we are looking for short stories and flash fiction written in second person.  We are also looking for first person (singular and plural) narratives.  A further post with samples—particularly of first person plural—will be posted soon so do stay tuned.  Meanwhile please comment below and let us know what you think of writing in the second person.  Do you enjoy reading it, writing it? Do you have any favourite quotes you’d like to share?

~S

 For further submission details please click here.


Endnotes

[i] McInerney, Jay, Bright Lights, Big City, Penguin, (1984) p. 1.

[ii] Banks, Ian, Complicity, Abacus, (1993), p. 3.

[iii] Calvino, Italo, If on a Winter’s Night A Traveller, translation by William Weaver, Vintage, (1998), p. 3.

[iv] Jenkins, A.M., Damage, HarperCollins eBooks, Kindle Edition, (2009).

[v] Miller, A. D., Snowdrops, Atlantic Books, London, (2011), p. 2.

[vi] Atwood, Margaret, ‘Happy Endings’ in Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems, Virago Press, (1994), p. 63.

[vii] Ibid., p. 69.

[viii] Atwood, Margaret, ‘Bread’ in Murder in the Dark: Short Fictions and Prose Poems, Virago Press, (1994), p. 71.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Hawthorne, Nathaniel, ‘The Haunted Mind’ first published in The Token and Atlantic Souvenir (1835), and then in Twice-Told Tales, Vol. 2, (1937).  This quote is taken from a Kindle edition (Twice Told Tales), Public Domain Books (2005).

[xi] Faulkner, William, Absalom, Absalom!,(1936), Vintage Books, (2005), pp. 212-213.

[xii] Tolstoy, Leo, ‘December in Sebastopol’ in The Sevastopol Sketches, (1855), translation by D. McDuff (1986), Penguin Books, London, p. 42.

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