September 24, 2019

Tuesday, September 24

In the grand realm of reasons why you should avoid listening to other people, hear a tale of writer Jay McInerney and one of his stories. While McInerney was working on the story he told a friend who was a prominent editor that he was writing in what is known as ‘second person.’ 

The friend told McInerney that he hoped he wasn’t writing the whole thing in second person. 

Big no-no, the friend said.


McInerney’s mega-hit bestseller, “Bright Lights, Big City,” the end result of that so-called misguided effort, is all in second person. 


In case you are unsure of what second person is, here’s a quick review of some forms of voice in writing:


1.     First person. 

The writer uses the word ‘I,’ to denote the main character. 

Example: I jumped in the river to save him. He grabbed my neck and dragged me down with him.


2.     Second person: The writer uses the word ‘you,’ to denote the main character. 

Example: You jump in the river to save him. He grabs your neck and drags you down with him.


3.     Third person close: The writer gives the main character a name and tells the story through that character.

 Jay jumped into the river to save him. “He’s got his hands around my neck. He’s strangling me. What am I doing, am I nuts? I’m nuts. This guy is going to kill the both of us before I can save the both of us. Here I am, self-aggrandizing again, thinking I can save other people when I can’t even save myself.” Jay held out a palm and smashed it across Horace’s face. What else was there to do? Horace released his hold. Jay watched him sink. See ya, Horace.

4.     Third person omniscient: Jay jumped in the river. The waves towered, foaming fists rising above Jay’s head, crashing, rising, crashing, rising. Horace grabbed him at the neck, held Jay so tightly his gasps diminished to trickles of breath. “You’re strangling me,” Jay gargled. “I’m drowning,” Horace screamed. “I’m fucking drowning.”  

“Yeah,” Jay spit. “Just like you to state the obvious.”


We’ve worked on essay prompts in the first person, and last week we worked on third-person omniscient. This week, I’d like you to try second person. Although it isn’t a natural form, writing in the second person can be enormous fun. Read Jamaica Kincaid’s story: and if you have a bit more time, the wonderful Lorrie Moore’s piece, before you begin. They are both short, simple pieces. Contemplate the approach – don’t worry so much about the story form; we’re just trying to move you into second person for the moment – and see what you end up with.

As always, next Monday, when you have finished this prompt, share it with someone. If you are one of my workshop students, of course share it with me.