A study of the second person

This blog post, the one that you are now beginning to read, did not come easily to me. Two nights ago, I spent about an hour rifling through the Google results of “blog topic generator” and “blog topic ideas” to no avail. (The first link is, admittedly, pretty cool, though I wasn’t clever enough to plug in the right three-noun combination.) My search progressed, leaving the land of the virtual and venturing into the land of the tangible, where I stumbled upon If on a winter’s night a traveler. 

Photo by Courtney Cheng

During the first week of winter break, I had purchased this novel by Italo Calvino on a whim. I’d happened to read an excerpt from his book Invisible Cities in an English class this past semester and had fallen in love with his word artistry, so when I saw him sitting on the shelf at Half Price, I couldn’t resist.

This will probably remain one of my favorite spontaneous book purchases for, namely, two reasons.

1. The writing found in If on a winter’s night a traveler

If you ever decide to read this novel, you will inevitably find yourself flipping open to this first page:

… (Calvino 3). Because the inner English major cannot bear to not cite her sources. | Photo by Courtney Cheng

Incidentally, as I read this first page, I could hear my mom cooking dinner downstairs, my brother watching a TV show on his computer, my dad downstairs talking with my grandparents on the phone. It was a few days before Christmas; I couldn’t bring myself to be rude. The least I could do was close my laptop – which I did. Call it English major’s guilt, but I wasn’t about to blatantly disobey an author’s orders, particularly when he was addressing me directly.

Calvino writes the entirety of this novel in the second person, which is uncommon for a work of literary fiction. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, also the first time that I had stumbled across this particular style in literature (as opposed to blogs, self-help books, and the like).

Ross Hockrow writes in his book, Out of Order: Storytelling Techniques for Video and Cinema Editors, that the use of second person is often done to highlight the audience’s “inclusion in the story… Including the viewers in the story gives them a part in the story,” which generally allows the audience to feel more investment in the continuation and furthering of the plot (83-4).

This was very much the case for Calvino. You, or “you” if you prefer, have picked up If on a winter’s night a traveler from the local bookstore and begun reading it – which you have at this point, no? At the end of the first chapter “you” realize the following chapter doesn’t belong in this book; it’s not a continuation of Calvino’s story, so “you” return to the bookstore to ask for a refund. As it so happens, the second chapter of your book – yes, reader, you who are sitting there reading my blog – also does not continue its story in the second chapter.

Entranced yet? Maybe infuriated.

I don’t blame you if you’re frustrated. My experience reading this novel was rather similar to taking a dive without an oxygen tank; I could only get so far in my explorations before needing to come back up for air.

Blame the English major in me – this was why I loved the book. Though difficult to follow at times, the book was very carefully written and breathlessly captivating at all times. Calvino’s beautifully crafted writing included lines like “a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph” (Calvino 10) throughout the novel. It was simply a delight to read.

(If anyone has read this and wants to discuss, I would be thrilled.)

2. The writing I like to do

When I first started writing regularly during my senior year of high school, I experimented with various styles – first person; third person; long sentences; short sentences; second person.

Second person? Like Calvino?

Yes, and no.

For about a year, I loved writing in second person and found myself instinctively turning to it without a second thought; before I knew it, the first pronoun on the page was a “you” rather than an “I” or a “s/he.” I couldn’t help it. If that was how the writing flowed out of my head, through my fingers, and onto the Word Document, then so be it. I wasn’t about to fight the urge to write because of my pronoun usage. However, I can attest that my writing was nowhere near as complex as Calvino’s, mostly because I’m nowhere near as good of a writer as Calvino.

In recent years, I tried harder to curb the second person itch. As childish as I found my first person writing and as tiresome as my third person was, I wanted to avoid the second person stigma. Granted, I couldn’t – and can’t – be sure there is a stigma, but with opinion columns like this one in the New York Times, I felt better safe than sorry.

Picking up Calvino’s novel somehow gave me some hope. Even though I can still only dream of being in the same league as him someday, his novel and his writing gives me something to reconsider each time I find myself fighting the urge in the index and ring fingers of my right hand from hitting “y,” “o,” and “u.” With time, and maybe a bit of luck, maybe that’s all the motivation I’ll need to keep myself writing more often.

Second Person Writing
Photo and Writing by Courtney Cheng

If you’re interested in how my second person writing sounds… Please leave comments. I would love to hear your thoughts.

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