“Hello, My name is Olivia Lowery, and I had a few questions to ask concerning writing, in general. They aren’t exactly concrete questions, more so abstract, but then again, what would you expect of a poet?
What is the drive for us to write?
Why do we write?”
Thanks for writing in. I’ve had to think over your questions a good deal because, like you said, they’re more abstract and pretty heavy questions.
In response to “What would you expect of a poet,” the quality that I expect most from poets—and really, all writers—and that I admire is simply honesty, which is more difficult than it sounds. I think the best writers skillfully toe the line between sincerity and being sentimental. One of my favorite poems is “Having a Coke With You,” by Frank O’Hara. O’Hara manages to tell us about his love for “you” by using examples and metaphors taken from his own personal experiences such as his time as an art curator (“I look at you and I would rather look at you than all the portraits in the world…). O’Hara takes this deeply personal experience—of friendship or attraction—and make it universal by placing it around the simple image of having a coke with “you.” It’s a meticulously orchestrated expression of his feelings, a confession that is not overwrought or full of cheese. That is what I expect from a good writer: well crafted honesty.
As far as your last two questions go, my only response can be that all of us write for deeply individualistic reasons. Some, like myself, write because they feel strange if they don’t. They don’t remember when they started writing but they know that they can’t stop and that they have to write once a day or something feels out of place. Others actually detest writing but do it for a paycheck. Some use writing as a confessional of sorts. Basically, we all write for our own reasons and I don’t think there’s necessarily a “wrong” reason for writing. I know some writers who shrug their shoulders when asked why they write; some of them answer with a question: “Do I need a reason?”
I think that’s a good question to mull over. Personally I don’t have a reason firmly grounded in logic why I write. I’m compelled to do it everyday—some days more than others, but still everyday—otherwise my day is just “off,” and I go to sleep thinking I didn’t get the most out that particular day.
Of course, I’m just one writer, and I’m very curious to hear why other folks write—if they have a reason or feel that they need one. Let us know your thoughts on the subject in the comments below!
Cheers and thanks to Olivia for some great questions,
Greetings, fellow writers. Javy Gwaltney here. My job is to answer any questions that you might have pertaining to writing or storytelling. All you have to do is shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll post a reply on here within a day or two.
We’re going to start things off with a topic that is often debated—somewhat fiercely—among fiction writers: is it okay to use second person (you) in fiction? The knee jerk answer is yes, yes it is. If you want to be technical, anything goes in fiction. Whether or not it’s effective is entirely different issue, so let’s reword our question—is using second person in fiction ideal?
It depends. I know a number of other writers will be at odds with me when I say this, but I tend to think that most of the time that second person is used in a piece, it falls flat. Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, recently had a story republished in the 2011 edition of The Best American Short Stories entitled “Out of Body” which was written in second person. The piece concerns a young man named Rob who has survived a suicide attempt and the relationship between him and a female friend. I found the story to be dull, overwrought, and the use of second person to be out of place.
In my experience, second person, when used correctly, accomplishes one of two objectives. The first is drawing the reader deeper into a character who faces many obstacles—interior and exterior—and whether or not it works depends on how well the author sets up and describes those experiences. The other objective is to put distance between the story and the reader, which might sound like a bad decision on the author’s part, but if they can pull it off, the end result may just very well leave the reader haunted, disturbed, or even inspired by what they’ve read. There are, however, very few instances where this approach will entertain the reader in the typical sense.
The reason that second person fails in “Out of Body” is because Rob is a fully defined character. He is reckless, annoying, and does things that perhaps “you” would not do. Characters in stories told via second person are best if they’re malleable, if they’re every(wo)man kind of characters. Egan’s story would have been better if it was written in first person or possibly third person, but the use of second person gives off the impression that the writer may have not been confident in the story she was telling and thus had to resort to tricks, which may not be the case at all, for Egan is a very talented storyteller. This is just the price that a writer pays when they attempt to use the second person and fail to pull it off, especially in a longer piece.
Second person stories should almost never be longer than five or six pages simply because the repetition of “you” is, for whatever reason, far more aggravating than the repetition of “I, me, she, he, it.” However, there are exceptions for every rule; the one that springs to mind is Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, a novel written completely in second person. McInerney’s book works because he manages to write in such a way that the constant repetition of “you” is not present—there’s usually a fair amount of description between each “you”—and his protagonist is a not a fully designed character (like Rob) but more of a vessel that carries us through the book. Sure, he’s been left by his wife, has a crack addiction, and is an alcoholic, but you don’t get much more character description beyond that, at least until the end.
By this point, you’ve probably surmised that I’m wary when it comes to second person narratives, and I think that’s the best way to go about it, especially if the story you want to tell is dear to you. The way an author tells a story is just as important as the story itself. How would the quality of the Harry Potter books be affected if the entire series was written in second person (ugh)? There are stories out there that should be told in second person, but to me they’re few and far between. Just ask yourself before you sit down to write your story if it really needs to be told in second person. And if you write it that way, and the final product isn’t what you hoped it’d be, don’t worry—that’s what revisions are for.
Disagree or have an anecdote you’d like to share about writing in second person? Post in the comment section below! And remember to send your questions to email@example.com. I look forward to reading them!