The four squad-bosses gathered around the wildfire-truck. We had been assigned to dig and secure a section of fire-line that dove into a steep canyon and then in burn it off to create a firebreak and hold it through the late afternoon. At the end of the day we debriefed to find out what went right, what went wrong and how to improve for the future. The first squad boss began, “I led the crew down to the bottom, where I cut line so I could tie in with Division Bravo on the other side of the draw.”
Second squad boss said, “You’re an I-guy.” The other squadie looked confused when the second said, “You tell a story and it’s all I. What about everyone else? You don’t include anyone. I I I I I. It’s not all about you.” We listened and smiled. Some stories do take a different point of view. The second squad boss told the story in second person point of view. “You need to do this” and “This is story is for you.”
First you can see how the second squad boss used it in the instructional mode, the most common use of the second person and familiar if you’ve ever bought anything with some assembly required. “You need to do this.”
The second was in the direct address, which in writing fosters a conversational and personal tone. “Yes I am talking to you.” At the same time it carries with it a sense of importance. “You need to hear this.”
Ironically the how-to type narrative can have the contradictory effect of creating psychic distance as opposed to the intimate and conversational even when in conversation. In the context of the trauma narrative the second person creates distance as a mechanism for the survivor to tell the tale at a remove, while also acting as the how-to narrative, and maintaining the intimate, “this story is for you and it is important” aspect.
As children, my father told some stories of surviving as a helicopter door-gunner in Vietnam in this fashion. He’d be sitting someplace, like in his easy chair or at the kitchen table or on a rock next to a campfire. Usually a cigarette smoked in his fingers. “When you see the rocket hit your rear rotor you know you’re going down. You try and brace for the crash, but you’ll get blown loose anyway and if you’re lucky it’ll be into the jungle and not the bulkhead. First before you move, do a mental inventory of your body that your locomotion parts work, because it’s guaran-damn-teed not all your parts will work, and then check on your crew. Gather weapons, food, and survivors and get the hell away before the VC show up. Pay attention, I’m not telling you this for my health.” He’d take a drag and let the smoke curl around his head. This narrative works on multiple levels. A story related this way creates distance between the storyteller and the event being related, but still imparts a how-to story that needs to be told to the listener or reader.
They tell stories this way and in a memoir or personal essay you can see how it’s not just any how-to, but a culturally significant how-to for an individual or a group and how it operates to deflect from personal I. If you feel the need to step away from the pickets of I in a memoir or personal essay, give second person a try, gain some distance on yourself, and show us how it’s done.
Sometimes, it might be all about you.