Photo credit: Amy Ouellette
You’ll want to avoid teachers or workshops — in an MFA program or elsewhere — that caution you against stories in second person, warning they can be difficult to write and annoying to read. Instead, naively explore a form that threatens you with death-by-pronoun.
Start with a story about a day in the Idaho woods when your mother was visiting from the Midwest and you took her and your young children to hunt for garnets in Emerald Creek. Relate how time and pressure create semiprecious gems that look rough — like any other rock in the creek — until they’re cut and polished. Describe your mother’s discomfort. Allude to your own disappointment.
Stand back. Ask yourself why you’re unwilling to own up to being the narrator of a story you’ve defined as nonfiction. Who are you trying to protect? You or your mother?
Answer your own question: Both.
Admit it. You don’t want to look needy, don’t want to identify whatever it was you expected that day. You don’t want to acknowledge that even as a grown woman, you longed for your mother to see you.
If you’re not up front with yourself, you can’t write the story effectively. Your narrator can hide behind a pronoun, but you, the writer — you have to be honest with yourself. Otherwise your reader will sense you’re holding back and won’t trust you.
Believe those who tell you second person can be alienating, distancing. It can be. Tread carefully but discover the ability of the second person to show vulnerability. While it appears the narrator is a wise person who wants you to be spared the confusion or hurt or missteps that the narrator has experienced, in reality, the "you" being addressed — the "you" who needs the wisdom — is the unhealed narrator — also you. You’re talking to yourself. In public. You see how risky that is?
If you’re not up front with yourself, you can’t write the story effectively.
Understand this is where second person gets tricky — and not just with the pronoun, though definitely with the pronoun, which is the same in both singular and plural forms. You don’t want to sound preachy. You don’t want to sound like you’ve got this figured out, because clearly, you don’t. Nobody wants to be lectured to by someone who is still confused.
Don’t use second person too often. Unless you’re Lorrie Moore
. In less capable hands than hers (which yours are) the second person can get tedious. If you’re writing personal essays, you’ll generally want to use first person. They are, after all, personal. They are your experiences, your longings, your joys and fears and loves and anxieties.
First person is vulnerable because you’re open, transparent. First person says: Look at me! This is my wound. This is my loss, my longing, my new awareness.
Choose first person for these essays:
How you grieved when you tried to find your nephew, who moved to New York in 1988, contracted HIV, and disappeared.
How you connected to a long history of women in the labor movement when you tried to start a union at the newspaper where you worked.
How infertility haunted you, decades after you tried to conceive a child.
How you recovered from losing your job in your sixties by rowing on a river with seven other women.
Me, me, me.
Exposed, the way the sun illuminates a dark stone in a creek bed, lights up its fractures.
You are the person who can tell these stories best.
Until you can’t.
Until the hurt is too much or the shame makes your cheeks burn and your stomach turn over even though you’re alone in the room with the walls you painted green after you didn’t just "lose your job" — you got fired — and found even the color of the walls too much of a reminder of the work you used to do in that office, the work you can no longer do.
Don’t give up then. Try third person.
Again, avoid the craft lectures and writing gurus who tell you third person isn’t close enough to the bone for a personal essay, the ones who tell you to dig into that hurt, excavate that shame.
Consider that third person allows you to look at yourself from a less threatening, less guarded, perspective. To stand on the edge of the action and describe what you see. To examine what Carl Jung called "the shadow," the parts of the self you can only recognize when you project them onto an Other or the Beloved.
Start with a story you thought made you look like a hero. (First person might be too self-serving for this.) See yourself from someone else’s point of view. Feel embarrassed. Say this: Damn. Jung was right.
Next, pretend to be writing about an Other — someone who is violent, someone who is unlikeable or unrepentant or in denial. Someone who isn’t you. (But, of course, is you.)
You can see why this could be off-putting.
Now use third person stream of consciousness to write an essay about your desire for revenge. Scare the shit out of yourself. Decide that’s sufficiently personal.
Don’t pretend you know all this when you choose a point of view. You’ll show your work to your writing group, and they will tell you where they’re confused, put-off, alienated. Listen when they ask: Where are
you in this story?
Find the you. The rough, unpolished you.
Make what you find into art.
÷ ÷ ÷
Lois Ruskai Melina
’s essay collection, The Grammar of Untold Stories
(Shanti Arts, 2020) was called one of “15 Books by Smaller Presses You Won’t Be Able To Put Down.” The title essay was a Notable work in Best American Essays 2018
. She lives in Portland, Oregon. More about her and her work can be found at https://www.loisruskaimelina.com/