Are You Talking to Me? Use of the Second Person

Perhaps it’s because I don’t like being told what to do. Maybe it’s because I don’t like to reflect on some of the things I’ve done. But as a reader I generally do not care for the use of the second person. I’ve been forced to rethink my position after reading Sue William Silverman’s masterful essay collection The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew. The book is hot off the presses; you can read my review on Goodreads.

Silverman_cvr-rv3_for_web-210I’ve always considered Silverman (let me call her Sue, because she is a mentor and friend from the Vermont College of Fine Arts) the maestro of the present tense. A VCFA workshop instructor once faulted my memoir submission for being in the present tense, arguing that a reader knows the present tense is only true when the writer writes “I am sitting here writing. Now I am writing some more.”

But Sue’s two memoirs–Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey Through Sexual Addiction–provide the reader with the author’s voice of experience by her skillful use of slanting details, selecting parts of the story that tell the reader more than the character herself knows at that moment.

So you can understand if I was a bit taken aback when I came across the first use of a second-person “You” in The Pat Boone Fan Club. “What are you doing, Sue?” I shouted in my head. “I want to like this book!” By that point I had already read four masterful essays and two “gentle reader” passages (one of them was a “gent[i]le reader,” get it?), so because she had me I kept reading.

The Jews are coming to visit, is how you think of it, back then. As if you, yourself, are not a Jew.

Who are these Jews?

Exactly, I said. Who are these Jews I do not remember visiting back then, and am I confused in thinking that I am not in fact a Jew? Perhaps as a journalist and policy writer I’ve dealt in too much non-creative nonfiction, but the fact-checker inside my head was already shutting down.

Keep reading and be quiet, I told it.

And so I kept reading. I completed that essay, “Swimming Like a Gelfite Fish.” I was then given four essays in the first person (welcome back!) before “you” returned, like a sneak attack, in an essay I had to read based on the title alone, “Prepositioning John Travolta.”

Perhaps it’s because you recently moved to Texas and can’t figure out if you live in Galveston or on Galveston Island that you begin to confuse prepositions.

This proved to be a delightful essay; humorous, insightful, thought-provoking. I then had my “you” palate cleansed with another “gentle reader” passage only to discover an even sneakier move by Sue. Her next essay, “Galveston Island Breakdown,” is in the second person but for the most part eschews the cue I use to spot it, the personal pronoun “you.” (Perhaps her confusion over prepositions, I thought, had spread to pronouns.)

Fall in love with a man who drives a blue Chevy convertible.

The Incomparable Sue William Silverman

The Incomparable Sue William Silverman

I’m sorry, have I just read an opening sentence that is an imperative? Am I to put down this delightful book and seek out this man (does Chevy even make a convertible now? Oh yes, I believe both the Corvette and Camaro come in those) and give him my heart? The essay continues along those lines, only using “you” when absolutely necessary to avoid confusion.

“Galveston Island Breakdown” begins on page 93. You may have noticed that I was still reading the book. My old policy of pretty much putting anything down that is in the second person had been demolished. I was thoroughly enjoying these essays. So, I asked myself, what did Sue do to draw me in and get me to overcome my aversion to the second person?

  1. The reader is not left in the dark. In the first essay in the second person, “Swimming Like a Gelfite Fish,” Sue is quick to provide details and back story to help us cope. Imagine if you were suddenly transported into someone else’s mind and body, but did not have access to their memories. You’d like a guide, right? So that third sentence–“Who are these Jews?”–is Sue’s first of many moments in which she provides context: “Distant relatives and old friends of your parents, your grandparents. From the Old Country. Russia. Kiev. Jews who fled.” As the essay progresses we’re told that we know they smell of musty Brooklyn and Bronx apartments because we’ve been forced to visit there; we’re told how a gelfite fish is made rather than just being shown it; and we’re even given a glimpse into our future: “What you don’t know then, but what you surely must suspect–even as a teenager–is that you will eventually marry a man who isn’t Jewish, who has never eaten gelfite fish.” Sue is not trying to shock a reader by throwing her in the proverbial deep end. Well, she is throwing the reader in the deep end, but she’s also providing floaties.
  2. It is used in moderation. I mentioned how many essays into the book it was before the first use of the second person appeared. I then had a break for a few more before it returned. And that return, “Prepositioning John Travolta,” is only seven pages. The essay builds on information about Sue’s life we’ve already learned in other essays, so the second-person shift allows us a fresh perspective.
  3. The author plays with the form. I mentioned that “Galveston Island Breakdown” has an acute absence of the second-person pronoun “you.” It also has a distinct lack of compound sentences. Many of the sentences are short. Some are not complete sentences. That blunt style combines with the imperative to keep the reader on her toes: “Glance in the mirror. Wonder if you’re sexy. Pretty?… Stop! Don’t feel sorry for yourself. Continue with your plan.” Here Sue is doing far more than simply using the second person; she’s creating a truly unconventional immersion for the reader. It would be hard to sustain–for the writer and the reader–over the length of the entire book, but it works here as a nice change of pace. It is followed, by the way, with one of the longest essays in the book, which is told in Sue’s so-familiar first person present tense.

Reading Sue’s book has me tempted to experiment a little with this form. I know I will be my own toughest critic. How do you react to the second person, as a writer or as a reader?

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

25 Responses to “Are You Talking to Me? Use of the Second Person”

  1. I understand the aversion to second person. There is an assumption that the reader will empathize/identify enough with the writer or character. It can jar me out of a narrative fairly quickly, especially if I’m arguing with the writer in my head (“No, I wouldn’t do that – why are they assuming that I would relate to that?”). My guess is that you’d have to be a fairly adept writer to use this technique and as you point out, use it sparingly.

    • Michelle, I enjoyed reading your reply to Patrick’s blog on my limited use of second person point of view in my new memoir. I agree it has to be used sparingly–and only when the material itself seems to call for it. There were a few sections in the book where I tried it, and it didn’t work, so I quickly revised them to first person. It is important that the use of second person serve the need of the essay at hand! So, yes, sparingly and only if it fits the essay! Sue

  2. I have a mixed reaction. Usually when I’m reading, I’m willing to set aside my reality and slip into someone else’s world, even if it’s fairly different from my own. But eventually, too much second person can be wearying. I have been tempted to use it occasionally but someone in my writers’ group usually tries to talk me out of it. I appreciate the explanation of how the technique works, though.

    • Ellen–thank you for responding to Patrick’s blog about my limited use of second-person point of view in my new memoir. I totally agree with you that it must be used sparingly…which is why I only use it in a few sections in my memoir. It has to “earn” its place in any given essay or story. But if the subject matter seems to “call” for it, then, for any of us writers, it can be interesting to try it. Which I guess can be said of any craft issue! Thank you!

    • Ellen–I don’t know what I did wrong–but that above post/response–was from me, Sue Silverman! Not sure why it says “anonymous@! Sorry!

  3. I usually enjoy second person simply because it’s so deviant. It also keeps my attention because, like your post title, I think, “You talkin’ to ME?” What I find so annoying that I’m likely to stop reading is present tense. Not sure why, but it takes a really skillful writer and intriguing story for me to abide that.

    • Sue, I think what you say about second-person point of view being deviant is interesting! I’ve never thought of it in that way before! Like use of second-person POV, too, with writing in the present tense, there has to be a reason for it–at least that’s how I approach craft issues! In other words, while I was writing this book, when I tried past tense, I felt I lost some of the immediacy. I guess what I’m saying is that I was able to feel closer to the actual experience in present tense. So that when I tried past tense, the material felt kind of far away–if that makes sense? There are so many choices when it comes to craft issues/decisions, aren’t there?!

  4. As a kid, my only experience of second-person perspective in a book was those old ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books (I died/failed soooo many times… not the best way to learn to love the POV😉 )

    I’ve possibly been fortunate in that the (albeit few) times I’ve encountered second-person perspective as an adult they were done extremely well; the authors were clearly accomplished writers who knew what they were doing. So I no longer have any aversion to that POV because I’ve come to believe any author who attempts it already knows what a tricksy little beast it is; if they’re going ahead and doing it anyway it shows a level of confidence in their skills that generally only comes from someone who’s been writing for a long time.

    I know some people dislike second-person because they don’t like being ‘told what to do/think.’ I’ve always approached it from the angle of having the chance to ‘be’ someone else for a while – like an actor who’s landed a role in a play.

    Sometimes a writer picks an ‘unpopular’ POV (second-person, present-tense et al) because it really is the only one that works for the story they want to tell. And if it means they lose some potential readers because of it… well, that’s just the way it has to be.

    • Wendy, I’m pleased to hear you’ve had positive experiences with 2nd person POV. And I love your comment about approaching it from the angle of having the chance “to be someone else for a while.” That’s an interesting way to view it! Sue

  5. I have enjoyed this reading immensely and found it enlightening. With the greatest humility may I remark that writing is something from the heart. Technique and style are tools by which writing is transmitted in a literal sense, to the reader. My personal preference in reading is ‘Feeling’ a message from the writer. A portrayal of colour, warmth, conditions and emotions present, will capture me every time. Thanks Patrick this is a great blog. B

  6. From the quotes you provided, it sounds like Sue uses the second person in essays that raise questions of her identity or differentiate the “real” Sue from the girl of her expectations. In that case, I don’t see how first- or third-person could work as well to begin with. Thanks for posting; after getting acquainted with Sue’s voice here, I’m putting The Pat Boone Fan Club on my to-read list.

  7. Well, I’ve heard that if you are going to deviate, do it in brilliant fashion. Sounds like she is the person for the job.

  8. I don’t mind the second person in small doses like this. I don’t think it would work for an entire collection, but for an essay or two or three–sure. I really enjoyed coming along with you on your thought process as you read the book. And now I’m interested in the book too. So good job!

  9. I have often refused to read something based on the person and tense because, frankly, so many people are simply not good at writing outside of the “default” third person narrative. I learned a lot about linguistics from a friend and colleague who introduced me to Chomsky, deep-case grammar and the concept of “markedness” in language. While I am no scientific linguist, many of these ideas sank their claws deep in me and have morphed to create a sort of philosophy of interpreting how we are affected by the form our words take, regardless of the language they occur in.

    Markedness in particular is a concept that has an insidious effect on the reader. The idea is that there is a default “neutral” unmarked status in language and this allows us to pass over the parts that are not meant to be attention-getters. When something is marked, it deviates from that neutral status and takes on additional importance in the text. This applies to virtually every variable that exists in language including voice, word choice, syntax, gender (in the linguistic sense) and pronouns. This, by the way, is why the whole “she/her campaign never completely took off in English-those pronouns are marked and introducing markedness where it doesn’t belong is jarring even to those who have no idea markedness exists. While some marked choices have only a minor influence on how the reader interprets the text, others have a very large one. Person in particular has a double whammy impact because it decides to what degree of closeness the writer brings the reader into the equation as well.

    If a writer creates a level of intimacy with his choice of person, he had damn well better follow through with that promise.
    Consider: If I as a writer create a level of intimacy with my choice of person, I had damn well better follow through with that promise.
    If you as a writer create a level of intimacy with your choice of person, you had damn well better follow through with that promise.

    In the first example of that sentence, I stay formal, theoretical, and despite the expletive (which is one of the most emphatic types of markedness), the emphasis remains at a distance from the reader. In the second example, I invite the reader to consider me as a writer making a decision and reaping its consequences in a much more intimate conversation. The reader is asked to experience it along with me. In the third, I am forcing the reader to take the risk and have the experience. If a writer is going to take control of the reader’s mind to that level, he has to be ready to pay out in the end with a satisfying experience for the reader. It is so heavily marked that if it doesn’t get buy in, the result is complete failure for the writer: he loses his reader. You can see the impact with just one sentence here, so imagine that impact over an entire text. It is huge. In the hands of a true artist, though, the result can be exquisite.

  10. Gentle readers (I’m borrowing from Sue here, who of course borrows from a deep literary tradition), thank you all for these insightful comments. Also a big thanks to Sue William Silverman, who is carving out time from attending the AWP Conference in Seattle to reply to the commenters! (My heart is at AWP right now, but after five straight years of attending that conference I’m giving myself–and my pocketbook–a break this year.)

  11. I’ve rarely read second person (I can think of only two novels) and although it was hard to get used to, I did end up enjoying the books — I chalked it up to not being used to the voice. That said, in my current novel in progress I have a coupld or instances where I write in second person… only rare instances. You’ve given me something to think about with this post, so I really appreciate it!

    • Thank you, Julia! I’d have a hard time reading an entire novel in second person, but a short story, yes, or a portion of a novel, sure. As other commenters note, it is powerful when done right, but very hard to do right.

  12. I’ve found all the comments here very interesting. And thank you, Patrick, for the blog post! Mainly, it’s my feeling that, as with all craft decisions, use of second person POV (even when used sparingly) has to be just that: a decision. In other words, from my perspective, there has to be a valid reason to use this POV, just as there has to be a valid reason when it comes to any number of other decisions made around craft. That’s the joy AND the challenge about writing: making all those decisions! “How would the piece work if I did ‘X’?” “How would it look if I did ‘Y’?” Again, I enjoyed reading these comments!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. How One Author Combined Personal Essays Into a Coherent Memoir | The Artist's Road - March 19, 2014

    […] the reader a clearer hint at the wisdom Ms. Silverman will be imparting here. You may have seen my recent post on her occasional use of second person in her new essay collection Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo Saxon Jew, or perhaps my […]

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