The Mark Blog

You, You, You, or Me, Me, Me

MC Escher

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about you. Not literally you (though, depending on who you are, who knows), but the pronoun you, as employed in that rare gem of a POV, the second person. So far, only one story in my collection is told in the second person. This week, so that story didn’t feel so lonely, I tried switching a newer piece from first to second.

The piece in question was starting to feel like a memoir. Not that I have anything against memoirs, but there are parts of the story I like that are flat-out made up. I hoped using “you” could help create some distance. But I also wanted it to be in past tense. For some reason, the second person seems to naturally roll out in present. I wondered if this combo had been used much, so I did a Google search but came up pretty empty-handed.

Then I remembered that Junot Diaz had two second-person stories in his latest linked collection, This Is How You Lose Her (note how he even uses "you" in the title). First, I checked out “The Cheater’s Guide to Love,” which I had first read in The New Yorker. Sure enough, it’s in present tense, and it covers a whole six-year time period. In another second-person story of his, "Miss Lora," he starts off in past tense, but a few paragraphs in, he switches to present. Of course I didn’t notice this on the first read. I think any stylistic choice can work as long as it doesn’t call too much attention to itself.

So it seems most writers who dare to narrate a story from a second-person perspective will do so in the present tense. This makes sense to me. A second-person narrator often sounds like they're telling a story to a close friend: “You know how it is when you’re drunk, horny, and there’s only one girl left in the bar… You’re less choosy.” Even though the grammatical tense is present, it’s clear that, as in Diaz’s stories, the experience refers to something that's happened in the narrator’s past. Told that way, the narrator creates a more inclusive mood and the story feels more immediate.

I also found a short interview wherein Diaz says, “[The second person] has the distinction of being both intimate and repellent at the same time.” He also talks of using the second person to create distance between himself and the narrator. "I wanted my narrator to be 'in' the story, but also to be able to comment on his younger self a little."

I wondered how critics reacted to this style, so went back to Google, and sure enough, found this link. The post contains a reference to a scathing critical tweet by one Emily Gould: “like, no, bro, I definitely didn’t treat a lot of women like shit or think it was ok in the end bc it turned out 2 be grist for the ol’ mill."

I won’t pick apart her critique here, but I will say that when I read a story that's told in second person, I never feel that the writer is talking about “me,” unless that’s the point (and generally, that’s a less effective use of “you”). This idea came up when we workshopped my second-person story. Antoine said he mentally changed "you" to “I,” whereas for Marissa “you” became “he.” Neither thought I should change it, however. But their different interpretations are telling, as they adhere more or less to their respective genders, and perhaps how closely or not closely each identifies with the (male) narrator. But then I thought of Lorrie Moore’s first collection Self Help, where the “you” is clearly a woman, and I related to her just fine.

In the end, for this particular story, I went back to using a first-person POV. Mostly, it’s an aural thing, which is also why the other story works better for me in second. If ever in doubt, I read it aloud, and choose the one that sounds best. Ultimately, it’s all language, words on a page strewn into sentences, creating meaning via their relationships to one another. The syntax can often guide the content, or vice versa, but I believe it’s best when the line is blurred, when they equally inform and embellish each other. In a similar way, truth and fiction blended together sometimes makes the most interesting stories. But I’ll save that topic for next week.

P.S. After starting this blog post, Junot Diaz made an appearance in one of my dreams, hitting me up for weed. Seemed appropriate.