You, The Narrator – Bright Lights, Big City

A black and white photo of a city that is blurred.

As part of the point of view (POV) series, we will review the second-person point of view.

Second-person POV uses the pronoun You. You can be either singular or plural and is used most frequently in American publishing in the self-help and cookbook genres. When authors use you instead of I or a third-person pronoun, you can have the effect of making the reader become the main character.

The second-person point of view has another cool effect: The narrator is also the reader or the person the narrator is telling the story to (at least I think so. What do you think?).

Whether that works or not rests with the skill of the author.

To observe the differences between third- and second-person narration, we’ll compare Ernest Hemingway and Jay McInerny.

Ernest Hemingway’s Jake Barnes

Jay McInenry references The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway in his 1984 novel Bright Lights, Big City with the following epigraph:

“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked.

“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually and then suddenly.”

All sorts of associations come to mind with this quotation. Hemingway’s first novel has been called the chronicle of The Lost Generation but one in which he claims his characters are survivors. Certainly the story of Jake Barnes is one of loss, dissipation and sadness. The carnage of WWI – the war to end all wars – lives around the edges of the story and in the body of Jake Barnes. He has had his penis – though not his testicles – shot off. With testes intact Jake’s body continues to produce masculinizing testosterone but no erection.

Jake seeks the love of Lady Brett Ashley. But he cannot accept the permanence of his injury nor that Brett cannot accept it, either. His inability to embrace his body as it is after war becomes the driving flaw of the story. Jake lives in an illusion.

Hemingway, by choosing third-person narration, seemed uninterested in whether the reader should want to be Jake.

Who would? Rather he wanted to speak about an entire generation of young men and women deformed by a war that need not have been fought, that everyone thought would never be fought and that render the mores of pre-WW1 Europe and America worthless.

Jay McInerny’s You

Of course, McInerny knew all this when he wrote Bright Lights, Big City. He might have employed the third person point of view just as Hemingway did. But McInerny, I think, was after another experience. He understood the lifestyle he himself had been living – working at The New Yorker and doing numerous lines of cocaine and being married to a model – was a lifestyle readers might want to experience.

Hence the use of the pronoun you. You snort the cocaine. You work for a persnickety ogress in Factual Verification in the hopes to one day write for Fiction. You tell no one your model wife has left you. You prefer to ignore reality, too.

In the following scene, McInerny describes You at his job at a famous NY magazine.

Already you feel a sense of nostalgia as you walk down the narrow halls past all the closed doors. You remember how you felt when you passed this way for your first interview, how the bland seediness of the hallway only increased your apprehension of grandeur. You thought of yourself in the third person: He arrived for his interview in a navy-blue blazer. He was interviewed for a position in the Department of Factual Verification, a job which seemed even then to be singularly unsuited to his flamboyant temperament. But he was not to languish long among the facts.

Each point of view has strengths and weaknesses. Would The Sun Also Rises have worked in using second person? I think not.

You have no penis. Nope. Not going to work.

Conversely, would Bright Lights, Big City work using a first- or third-person narration? Again, no. Had McInerny deployed either of those POVs, I think our narrator as a drug-addled, spoiled idiot would have tired us , and quickly, too.

Does You, The Narrator Work?

It does for me in Bright Lights, Big City.

I have had periods in my life when I did not languish long among the facts, especially when what has been true of the world and what I have wanted to be true of the world are a chasm’s-width apart. So I think you works as a narration tool if the writer can create a certain degree of empathy or affinity in the narrator. Plus it’s cool to imagine working for The New Yorker.

You is tricky. But there are no recipes in writing. As writers we slip into a boat, push away from the shore and begin to row to another shore we cannot even imagine, sometimes. We have to write, rewrite and maybe even start from the beginning, all over again.

Use the second-person point of view in your own work. Take a paragraph you’ve written in another point of view and rewrite in the second person. What happens? Does it work?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of second-person point of view?

Point of View in Writing

A man's hands are on the handlebars of a bicycle. as we look down the street from his point-of-view
photo by Will White

Point-of-View (POV) is a grammatical position through which you choose to tell a story. I say grammatical as a way to distinguish the different types of POVs.

A POV uses first, second or third person as a narrative structure. This assumes you will write a rather traditional work. Experimental writing may attempt to dispense with POV, which is to say the author has no narrative structure per se. They may still write using I/You/They, but those pronouns don’t function as part of the story’s scaffolding, but then again they just might. This is why experimental literature can be tricky with regard to POV.

So we will focus on more traditional uses of POV.

First person singular uses I.

First person plural uses We.

Second person singular or plural uses You.

Third person singular uses He/She.

Third person singular uses They.

Within third person there is third-person close and third-person omniscient.

Each structure has strengths and weaknesses. Each structure will allow you certain insights into your characters and your narrator (if you have one), but not others.

A very important reminder: the use of I, you or he/she does not necessarily make a work first-, second- or third-person POV. You may have to read for many paragraphs to determine the narrative structure. As a writer you can use this to your advantage.

The first-person singular allows you to provide all manner of insights and thoughts of your narrator. Holden Caufield narrates “The Catcher in the Rye.” We know what he thinks and feels, and that’s it.

Attempts to describes the internal thoughts of other characters fails as a first-person POV. I cannot know another person’s thoughts unless they choose to share them with me.

The first person plural, though rarely used, can place an individual narrator within a larger group of family, friends or community. Julia Otsuka uses it well in her novel, The Buddha in the Attic as does Joan Chase in During the Reign the Queen of Persia.

I could have written “I will be sharing these texts with you in the next few weeks.” But I didn’t. I chose to use the first-person plural instead. What changes when I use we instead of I? How might that impact your writing?

Second-person singular and plural is a fascinating and unique strategy through which to structure your work. Second-person works have been around a long time. Both Leo Tolstoy and Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote short stories using the second person. More contemporary works include Self-Help by Lorrie Moore and Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerny.

You swear you won’t ever write a story using second person. But  you have to admit there are distinct advantages to it. Whether it’s writing one of the earliest forms of you-are-there reporting in Sebastopol in December (Tolstoy), a very chilling tale in The Haunted Mind (Hawthorne) or the very distinct distance between what we believe to be true about ourselves and what is actually true (Moore and McInerny), the second person intrigues you. The trick is knowing how to best take advantage of its effects.

Third-person close. Third person close can almost pass as first person. The intent of third person close is to follow one particular character and no other. The story is told from that character’s perspective. J.K. Rowling did it to great effect in Harry Potter. Everything is told from his perspective using third person.

Third-person omniscient. Used in romance and thriller genres. Peruse the web and you’ll find writing gurus who tell you, “don’t get into the head of more than one character in any scene.” Whatever.

Know the rule then break it as you need to. The why determines the how in writing. You might decide to have each paragraph in one chapter told from a different character’s point-of-view. Excellent. I’m happy to read on, as long as the why makes it worth my while.

The suspension of disbelief is overrated, I think. Of course it’s a construct! I will happily read any POV, even several in the same paragraph (and yes, we’ll be talking about how Mohsin Hamid does this in How to Get Filthy Rich in Asia).What I value more as a reader is a writer’s execution. I say go for it.

Think about some of your favorite works of literature. Which POV (or POVs) did they use? How might you use some of this in your own writing?

Gone Reading

two beach chairs at dusk along a shoreline

I work every day except for two or three months of vacation when I travel and generally don’t work at all. I read very little during the year, and when I go away I take a big valise full of books, books that I didn’t have time to read. – Simone de Beauvoir

I will be taking a two-week scheduled break to spend time with family, friends,  gorge on tomatoes, revel in the last weeks of summer and, like de Beauvoir, read.

The newsletter returns Thursday, September 10 with a multi-part series on point-of-view. This series will cover the usual first- and third-person omniscient and close points-of-view plus the less used first-person plural and second-person points-of-view. Choosing a point-of-view is one of the most important decisions a writer can make. I look forward to sharing with you excerpts from some great books and reading your feedback on this exciting series.

Please relish these last weeks of summer.

Ursula Le Guin’s Advice: There Are No Recipes

A hand writes blah, blah, blah across a page
Image by Flood.

The process of rewriting can be difficult. When you have loved a particular essay as much as I have loved the one I am now rewriting, the act of cutting something can be agonizing.

Making Something Good

Writer Nancy Jean Moore asked Le Guin, “How do you make something good?”

If Le Guin were an internet writing guru I suspect she would have offered up advice like “show, don’t tell” or “write what you know.” Le Guin would have then followed up with a proposal to buy her ebook/course/one-on-one coaching sessions.

We might have said yes to the offer. We were inexperienced and scared and wanted a prepackaged recipe for success.  Le Guin knows this:

Inexperienced writers tend to seek the recipes for writing well. You buy the cookbook, you take the list of ingredients, you follow the directions, and behold! A masterpiece! The Never-Falling Soufflé!

Le Guin, however, is an actual writer, not a writer who writes about writing, which is what so many internet gurus are. Le Guin has written the Left Hand of Darkness, a book published in 1970 with characters who are neither male nor female, and the Earthsea series for children. So when she says there are no recipes for writing, she knows what she is talking about.

But alas, there are no recipes. We have no Julia Child. Successful professional writers are not withholding mysterious secrets from eager beginners. The only way anybody ever learns to write well is by trying to write well. This usually begins by reading good writing by other people, and writing very badly by yourself, for a long time.

The poet Theodore Roethke said it: “I learn by going where I have to go.”

Keep Alive and Write

I’ve chased a guru a time or two. Signed up for some online classes with varying results. Whether or not the classes improved my writing, I can’t say. But I can say the classes revealed to me an almost desperate need to get better as a writer. As I read more and harder writing, I now know how incredibly awful my writing is.

Writing is just plain hard.

There is no way through except to keep reading and writing and tolerate the shiite I write. Desiring an easy way through this affliction to write won’t make it so. And I’ve tried.

I’ve dangled the carrot of a MFA program in front of me, more than once. But I can’t bring myself to do it. It’s not the money even.

An MFA program, in the words of Siddhartha Deb, would not be my friend. Deb continues:

You know that writing is a political, ethical thing and that you will have to look outside the professional world of both N.Y.C. and the M.F.A. in order to keep that vision of writing alive. You know (James) Baldwin’s words, and you repeat them to yourself every day. “Find a way to keep alive and write. There is nothing else to say.”

No recipes. No advice. Find a way to keep alive and write.

What Keeps You Alive?

Writing these newsletter pieces about the how of writing keeps me alive, and honest, too. By promising to deliver something to you twice a week, I force myself to write and to read. And I’m creating something I need, rather desperately it seems, a place where writing is more than just starting (ala Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art) and more than just finishing. It’s about striving and sweating and suffering through tremendous periods where all I am managing to do, in the words of Stephen King, is shovel shit from a sitting position.

Thank you to each of you who has responded personally to my newsletter articles. I appreciate your thoughtfulness and time so very much.

In closing, what you are doing to keep alive and write?