Friday, January 30, 2015

further explorations of second person POV

Second Person Point-of-View  (archaic)
Perhaps it is getting to be the season to consider writing fiction in second person point-of-view (POV-2).  Our last exploration of POV-2 was October, 2014, and a new article on the topic has just come out in the February issue of Writer's Chronicle, by James Chesbro, titled: "Notes to You--Second Person in Creative Nonfiction."  Chesbro's examples are taken from essay and memoir writers, but the techniques will be the same for fiction writers.  His article is sometimes a bit complex and difficult to follow, but can further an
 understanding of the effects in using POV-2.  

In many, perhaps most, cases, the persona or real identity of the protagonist addressed by the "you" of POV-2 is actually the narrator of the story.  For example, in the case of a memoir the person "you" addresses is often the narrator himself at some earlier age.  However, intermittently, and sometimes in the same paragraph, the "you" being addressed may be the reader.  This slipperiness might be used to good effect in conflating the tensions felt by the protagonist with those felt by the reader.  When the reader is cast in the role of "you," he or she becomes more intimately associated with the protagonist.  He or she becomes the protagonist.  

Let's look at an example given by Chesbro, from the essay, "Swimming With Canoes," by John McPhee:
The canoe rocks, slaps the lake, moves forward.  Sooner or later, you lose your balance and fall into the water, because the gunwales are slender rails and the stern deck is somewhat smaller than a pennant.  From waters deeper than you were tall, you climbed back into your canoe.  If you think that's easy, try it.
In the early part of the paragraph the narrator's "you" is self referring, in a scene that took place when he was a young boy.  The reader may be gripped by the risks and dangers faced by the boy, but can keep some distance from what is happening.  However, in the last sentence of the paragraph, Chesbro suggests a slippery switch by the author from self address to direct address of the reader:
"(which) can trick the mind of the reader into placing himself on the gunwales of the canoe and slip just as the boy character slips into these complex and elusive aspects of you. We can deduce that the conflation of direct and self address is a purposeful affect of McPhee's multi-faceted utilization of second person construction."
 Fair enough, "If you think that's easy, try it," does indeed have an effect of causing the reader to more directly imagine just what he might have done in that same incident.  

Let's move now to another example from Chesbro, a beautifully straightforward example of POV-2: "If You Should Want Flowers for Your Table (Advice to a Daughter)," a 565 word essay by Marsha McGregor. The second person construction serves here as a direct address to the narrator's daughter.  The mother's voice is part of what makes this undemanding use of second person work so well.  Ostensibly, the mother is advising her daughter on how to care for flowers, but "we can see the metaphors on conduct, morality, and how to live."  In excerpts from McGregor:
"A small garden patch to call your own is lovely, but even a sad, weed-choked spot near the highway will yield plenty...Last week I veered off the road near that custard stand you loved, parked the car on the shoulder and waded into a riotous patch of wild sweet peas, all tangled tendrils and wiry stems, reminding me of the way you looked as a child when you slept...If you pursue the wild things, love, look out for bad drivers and poison ivy.  Be careful."

Gorgeous writing.
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