ABCs of Flash Writing: Y is for You

Posted by on May 12, 2018 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on ABCs of Flash Writing: Y is for You

Y is for You

Long before you started writing, you read Mary McCarthy’s semi-autobiographical collection, The Company She Keeps. One story, “The Genial Host,” blew you away, stuck with you. It was written in the second person, with “you” standing in for the authorial “I.” How did she pull it off, you wondered.

Years later a personal essay you were writing just wasn’t coming together. An old boyfriend, a night at the symphony, the death of the relationship. You wanted it short and punchy, to capture the mood of the moment. Discarding the predictable first person, you tried third person—yourself as “she,” but that didn’t work either. Then you hit on it:

“You’re dressed all in black. Light-wool slacks, scoop-necked silk top, suede blazer, low-heeled pumps. That’s your look, understated, chic and put together without dressing up. He beams his approval—your appearance still passes muster.”

That was the first of several pieces you’ve written in the second person. Trial and error help you figure out when it might work. You’ve found this point of view hard to maintain in longer pieces. Like a novel you read recently: its second-person narration charmed you at first but then felt gimmicky, got in the way of the story. In flash pieces it can create just the right tone—while “I” can feel overly self-conscious, “you” can muse and mewl, boast and belittle.

“You” as surrogate for “I” can be both distancing and intimate. It allows the writer to stand apart from painful memories: “You didn’t know what a broken heart felt like until now…” or to chastise herself: “How could you have been so stupid?” At the same time it invites the reader to share the experience: “You get home from work, your feet sore from those damned pointy-toed needle-heeled pumps, you pour yourself a double and drop to the couch.”

Virginia Woolf believed self-writing was a joint effort of “I now” and “I then,” the writer as separate from the person and events she’s writing about. Similarly the “you” perspective allows a writer to look at herself objectively, as an outsider.

Another use of the second person point-of-view places “you” as the subject or figurative recipient of a piece. Say a writer wants to do a story about her mother or her ex without it feeling like reportage or a bio (“she was born in poverty” / “he lied through his teeth”). She can address them directly: “You suffered hardship as a child and vowed it would be different for us, your children.” “You called me your Bit’o’Honey and brought me stuffed animals —how could I know what a self-serving bastard you were.”

It worked for your flash essay “How to become a writer after 60,” in which “you” was the reader you were advising: “First, quit your full-time job.”

Second person point-of-view is powerful—you want to use it judiciously, like Sriracha, or it will lose its oomph. Sometimes it’s not right: Sriracha on a tuna sandwich, yeah, but not on a PBJ.

In an early essay, you were experimenting with style and point of view, trying to find your own voice. You drafted it in the second person and submitted it for critique. The instructor said it sounded like you were trying to disown the experience. Too distancing, she said; rewrite it in the first person. Lesson learned. Now you read your work aloud, swirl the words around in your mouth to see how they taste and mesh. I or you, she or he, we or they—they’re all possible points of view, different sized wrenches in the writer’s toolbox. 

You’ve learned you’re not alone—many writers want to try this form on for size, and you’re glad you can point them to some helpful resources:

  • collections of flash fiction and nonfiction often include examples of second-person point-of-view.
  • Spry publishes flash prose in every issue, as do many other literary journals.
  • You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person, edited by Kim Dana Kupperman, is outstanding.
  • Rose Metal Press Field Guides—Writing Flash Fiction and Writing Flash Nonfiction—are gems that address structure, language, voice, point of view.

Flash is an uncompromising master—it dictates the length of your work, and you must comply. Sacrifices must be made. You killed your darlings—150 of them—to get from the 900-word essay you started off with here down to the needed 750. That’s why flash pieces often don’t wrap up with a tidy ending. So you stop, just like that….

Alice Lowe reads and writes about life and literature, food and family. Her personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals, including 1966, Adelaide, The Baltimore Review, Brevity, Crab Creek Review, The Millions, Permafrost, Room, and The Tishman Review. Her work is cited among the Notable Essays in the 2016 Best American Essays and was nominated for the Best of the Net Anthology. Alice is the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. Alice lives in San Diego, California and blogs here.