Why I Write In The Second Person

Say what you will about using the second person, I regard it as the style that singlehandedly revived my passion for writing. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that I owe everything to that controversial You. Now I know that whenever a writer talks about his or her craft, it’s about as appealing as attending a Jerry Lewis telethon. However, I feel like it’s important to touch on the second person and why it’s been such a formative aspect of my writing.

There’s something about going to school and majoring in creative writing that can make you lose all joy for it. After spending four years awash in a sea of Didion and Orwell, I wasn’t sure what my voice was or even if I had one. All I did was mimic my surroundings in terrible fictional short stories that revolved around heartbreak, death, and in one particularly insufferable figment of my imagination, a family vacation to Italy that somehow revolved around AIDS. The stuff I wrote in college was terrible but I refused to be one of those douchebags who majored in non-fiction and wrote a memoir for their senior thesis. A memoir?! At age 22? About what? Your #dark privileged upbringing and how you learned to fear gluten? Um, no thanks. So I deluded myself into thinking that I could write fiction, completely neglecting to realize that I had no imagination to speak of and could only write what I saw in front of me.

Needless to say, by the time I graduated college, I had yet to find my groove with writing. I was so wrapped up in what I was reading for school and what my peers were doing that I couldn’t find a style that made sense for me. What was frustrating though is that I would have these brief moments of clarity when I would tap into something good, something that had a real energy to it. But then, it would leave me as quickly as it came.

Enter my Jesus Christ and personal savior, Self-Help by Lorrie Moore. I read it shortly after graduating from college and was instantly drawn to her use of the second person. I hadn’t really seen it done before, or at least not so effectively. By using the second person, Moore was able to draw the reader into whatever she was experiencing and make you feel like you were experiencing it too. It made every story feel so personal but universal at the same time, which later became my editorial motto—make everything feel raw and honest but make sure that people can also see themselves in the story. This was something Moore was able to master through the use of the second person and something I tried to emulate very quickly.

Shortly after reading her book, I went to have lunch with an ex-boyfriend of mine. It ended up being one of those painful meet ups where you both talk about how great you’re doing but then secretly entertain the thought of sleeping together. We didn’t have sex because we were both seeing other people at the time but that still didn’t stop us from getting drunk at lunch and then coming back to my apartment to smoke some pot. There was clearly some tension between us. When you see an ex, there’s so much that’s not being said that it slowly just starts to suffocate you. By the end of our time together, I just wanted to scream out a million things or hand him a translator that had a key like: ” FYI I’m doing great!” means “Sometimes I still fantasize about you!” or “I’m so happy for you!” means “I hope your relationship ends abruptly and you adopt lots of cats while I marry a dreamboat!” There was not a single moment of honesty in the entire day. So I did what every writer does when they want to speak their mind: I wrote about it the second after he left, the result of which ended up being my first piece for Thought Catalog. As a how-to, it’s one of my worst and not very traditional—the grammar is terrible, the style doesn’t match my later pieces, and the writing is choppy—but the experience of writing it was effortless in a way that I had never experienced before. I felt like I had unlocked something inside of myself by using the second person and it allowed me to produce something I was actually medium-proud of. In the beginning, I was so self-conscious and insecure about my writing that it felt like my bodyguard in a way. It provided a shield. By saying “you” instead of “I”, I could be more revealing without bringing too much of myself into the piece. Since I didn’t have enough confidence to stand behind the things I was saying, I needed someone else (the reader) to endorse my thoughts and feelings.

I ended up getting so comfortable with writing in the second person that it took me a few months to be able to write something in a different style. I wasn’t even sure I could do it. I had gotten so cozy that it had almost become a crutch. But when you see yourself becoming dependent on a certain way of writing, that’s when you know to shy away from it and challenge yourself with something new. Now, even though the second person has become a staple of mine, I’ll go weeks without doing it. In fact, sometimes when  I sit down and try to write a new how-to, I’ll feel like I’ve forgotten how to do it (ha?), which both terrifies and delights me.

I don’t why the second person gets such a bad rap in the writing world. Maybe because, on the surface, it’s extremely easy to do—even for me, it felt very much  like “Writing For Beginners”—but the reality is that it’s difficult to do well. When you read a book like Self-Help, you see that there’s a real artistry to it and that it’s undoubtedly a valid and important style of writing. Whether I abandon it today or write a new how-to tomorrow, I will always have a fondness for the second person and will defend its value till the very end.

You can now continue hating the second person. Thanks for your time. TC mark

image – piermario

Ryan O'Connell

I'm a brat.


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  • Sophia

    Loved this. I love your use of the second person – it does exactly what you said it does, making everything relatable and allowing the reader to see himself/herself in raw and honest pieces. Keep doing it, if that’s what leads to the most candor and honesty from you. Your pieces are almost always heartfelt and lovely.

  • Rishtopher

    Good job, Ryan! I liked reading this, it felt like you were really opening up to your readers in a way that I haven’t seen before. Not you as in your routines, or your likes or dislikes, but you as a person. This has been a pleasant experience and I thank you for it.

  • Amanda

    Totally agree. I’ve always supported the second person – one of my favorite styles to read and write. I like that it feels informal and conversational, and I love its simplicity. Well said. Also, I was a writing major in college and am with you on the disillusionment/burnout that comes with it. The occasional epiphany is usually not enough to break the cycle of half-hearted crap you churn out just to finish assignments. But that’s how it goes. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Kat

    I’m right there with you–as a reader, the second-person usually helps to draw me into a piece. At worst, it is merely neutral, neither pulling me in or pushing me away. Conventional wisdom says that “you” in academic writing is too informal. I’m a college instructor, and by what I’ve seen, novice writers/thinkers tend to put words into readers’ mouths and think that everyone knows exactly what they mean and what they’ve experienced, so it’s usually best for students to challenge themselves by leaving out “you” and by seeing themselves from other people’s perspectives. (There’s a bigger world out there? Really?) But you’re not doing this for class (yay for you and me!), and the informal use of “you” definitely works. I’m very glad you were able to find a style that is comfortable; that in itself is a major challenge for writers (myself included), so congrats! Can’t wait to read more of your writing!

  • Adam Detzner

    I dig this! and I certainly didn’t mean for my article to be an attack. Just trying to ~start the conversation~.

    • OK

      Nice use of tildes (guess who?)

  • Christopher

    It is hilarious that you think your own writing could be considered a craft. 

    • h-m

      Yeah, because people read your writing everyday and like it way better than Ryan’s. Right?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504951716 Tau Zaman

        I think you’re misunderstanding. I don’t think it was an attack at his writing ability, more so the notion that someone’s writing could be a craft in itself. And no one’s can be, right? 

        That being said, your response implies that the number of people who read something and its popularity determines what constitutes a craft…um, that’s not right. And don’t put people down by assuming their writing is obscure–that’s not nice. How many writers get noticed these days? Not many; it’s hard stuff, right?

  • Kristina

    It’s difficult to defend your style of writing without becoming defensive, but you pulled it off well. Second-person gets a bad rap in the writing world, I think, because it seems trendy, like “everyone’s doing it,” but it can lend itself perfectly to certain pieces. This was honest and real, thanks.

  • Garance

    Oh please. I read the other article and your grammar is fine.

  • http://www.visakanv.com/ Visakan V

    You understand why you write in the second person. 

    What you really want to know, though, is why you write about why you write in the second person.And that’s why you write at all.(You see what you did there.)

  • sonemanifest

    I personally LOVE when you write in the second person

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504951716 Tau Zaman

    This is a pretty good defense of using the second-person. I like it.

    I don’t actually mind the use of the second-person so much as I mind HOW it’s used–most often as a set of directions in a how-to. I’ve just read so much, “Feel the heartbreak, wonder how you ended up here,” or “Tell yourself it’s going to be okay, pick yourself up by your bootstraps, open the windows and let the sunshine in” that it just feels preachy and melodramatic at times.

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    […] writes in second person. Not all the time, but often enough to make it feel like some things on the Internet these […]

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