In college, you were blown away when you first read Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City. You had never read anything like it and you didn’t know it was even possible. At first, reading a novel in second person was jarring, but you got used to it, and once you got into the story, the second person narration seemed to become second nature. Then you realised you use second person more than you think — a lot in fact — when telling stories. You just never thought about using second person while writing stories.
Now, you are a creative writing teacher, and today you will introduce the second person perspective to your own students. At first, they look at you with half-closed, sideways eyes as you tell them you’re about to show them something that will blow their minds. They are 18 and 19 years old. They have seen it all. They have done it all. They know it all. At this point in their learning careers, they are here for the performance of routine. Come on, they challenge with their eyes. Show us what you’ve got.
You hand out the first chapter to McInerney’s novel: “It’s Six A.M. Do You Know Where You Are?” It is jarring for them at first, you can tell, because as you read aloud, you are looking around the room, watching their faces, their eyes twitching in determination to find some narrative grounding. They scan the first page, and you know they are trying to see if the entire story reads like this. You remember that feeling. You are blowing their minds.
Well, not you alone, but you and McInerney. In fact, you could not have done it without him. He is the hero here, the one who brought even you out of the dark ordinariness of ‘I’ or ‘He’ and into the enlightened possibilities of ‘You’. You smile at your own memories as they settle into the story about a guy who is in a club talking to a girl with a shaved head. They laugh at the references to “Bolivian Marching Powder” — their laughter is supposed to tell you this is familiar territory for them — and you know they are getting into the story, accepting the use of second person, moving into the light of new possibilities for their own writing.
After you finish reading, they discuss the story, the use of the second person perspective, and the particulars of the setting. The storyline is problematic for one of the boys who doesn’t like stories about drugs or clubs. When you ask him about the use of second person, he says it’s a cop out, a way to hide behind point-of-view. Using first person would force the narrator to take responsibility, to have accountability, he says. You nod in some agreement and you call on someone else. We use ‘you’ in hypothetical situations, says another student. You agree with this and ask him for an example. When you’re asking for advice, he says, you say “Say you’re in a situation like this…” and he goes on.
What about writing a scene or an entire story in second person, you ask. They pause and stare at you with eyes searching for what it is you are going to ask them to do. You give the assignment — write a second person scene that takes place in a confined setting like an elevator — and they start writing. One boy, who sits in the corner and stares out the window most days, asks you quietly, “What was supposed to blow my mind?” You ask him if he has seen anything like this before. No. You ask him if he has written anything like this before. No. You shrug your shoulders as if to suggest he should come up with a new definition for what he considers mind-blowing. He nods his head, picks up his pencil, and focuses on his notebook. You have done your job, you think. At least for today. At least for this hour.