It’s been really hard for me to keep posting recently because I’ve been caught up with living, you know, and processing the political times we live in. Any time that I am too consumed with thoughts and actions in the here and now, my writing suffers, and because of my vow to never let the WIP work suffer, I had to leave the blog for a while. I’m not sure whether other writers (and readers) have this experience, but I am very conscious of how reality affects my thinking, my moods, and ultimately my writing. I am still wrestling with all of this turbulence, but I ran across a short story that inspired me to try writing something in second person point of view (POV) and, if you’re writing, you might find you want to try it, too.
There’s a fantastic little short story, only 2500 plus words, in Clarkesworld this month that inspired me both as a writer and a reader. “Of Sight, of Mind, of Heart” by Samantha Murray is a tender story of a mother reflecting on her firstborn child’s first year. The child’s development is spectacularly rapid. The reader realizes some unspecified deal has been struck between the mother and unseen authorities that has resulted in the birth of this child. There is a war. The world is threatened. The mother’s voice is laden with guilt, and love.
I both enjoyed the story and learned something from it. As a reader, it is an inspiring short take on love, sacrifice and betrayal. As a writer, it reminded me how powerful second person can be.
Here, the mother narrates in present tense. You see the world from her point of view. Everything she describes is addressed to “you” who is actually her. She is inviting or commanding you the reader to immerse yourself in her world.
Ben is healthy, intelligent, and active, everything he was engineered to be. It doesn’t say it in the manual, but you know from the center that when they grew kids up quick in the lab, that even though they’d been screened for mental disorders, without mothers (or sometimes fathers) something would go wrong with a lot of them. They’d get depressed, they’d wig-out, they couldn’t work well in a team. Without mothers.
At night Ben has started escaping from his cot. He is a strong baby, good at climbing. He makes his way into your room in the darkened hours and you are woken by a little voice at your side saying “Up! Up!” You know you should take him back to his own room, all of the books say you should. But you don’t.
It is very personal, this POV, because it is constricted to exactly what she did and what she thought. It feels incredibly honest, though it is not. The story maintains an element of mystery because the narrator doesn’t provide an explanation for her motivation for having this genetically enhanced child. The reader doesn’t know exactly why she did what she did, though the story gives plenty of hints at hugely important external events.
But second person POV does more than give you a personal, up-close account of events. That kind of lens could have been achieved in first person POV. Second person demands the reader imagine themselves as the character. It relentlessly puts the reader into the narrator’s shoes. It can seem forced and manipulative, though Murray’s story did not feel that way to me. Murray successfully avoided the three major pitfalls of using second person: 1) she avoided the “you” becoming overly repetitive and boring, 2) she, somehow, convinced the reader that the narrator was honest, and 3) she kept it short.
The first and third points are obvious if you read the story, but the second one fascinates me. How did she make me trust this narrator who certainly has done something that is morally questionable? I am still trying to figure out the answer to this question, but I think it boils down to my instinctive willingness to believe what a mother has to say about her child and her relationship with her child. I came to the story with a degree of trust.
Which brings me to the revelation I had related to the political turmoil all around us. Can we, as writers, use second person POV to increase understanding among people? I know, I know, as writers we have no responsibility above and beyond writing well. I accept that as the bedrock on which I stand, but there is no ceiling, is there? Aren’t we writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror generally seeking ways to make the alien and the villain understood. Maybe not loved, but at least understood? Who says we cannot use these skills to address the issues of the day as well?
Because words are my work, and they are what I contribute to the world around me, I feel that I have some responsibility to apply the second person POV to some nonfiction, expository writing right now. I’m not abandoning fiction, mind you, but I’m going to try to write a bit for the times, and 1) not become overbearing with the “you”; 2) seek to establish my voice as one that can be trusted; and 3) keep it short.