Monday, November 7, 2016

Will Slattery: Theses on Teaching the 2nd Person

--You contain multitudes. Vast, innumerable multitudes. This seems obvious enough.

--You are (in theory) a combined drill instructor/cheerleader/permission-giver/fact-checker/role model.Which is to say: you teach introductory level creative nonfiction courses.Which is to say: you are likely a graduate student. You will (in theory) pass on your hard-won knowledge and experience to a new, eager generation.

--You fear that this is too much power and too much responsibility. But you feel a similar anxiety whenever a date asks you to pick out a bottle of wine at a restaurant. If you can survive that, you can survive this.

--You have been told by various literary authorities that the 2nd person is either a gimmick or a provocation or a hegemonic function or a collection of projected selves or a cool idea for a writing exercise maybe or an essential tool for subverting Western notions of identity or a bit overdone these days.

--So then: what are you? And what are you good for?

--You can be, most obviously, a reader, an audience, a textual comrade-in-arms, an accomplice in the making of meaning, a point which helps determine the range of interpretive possibilities for any given work. Making this explicit is an old trick. Consider the last line of the first poem of Les Fleurs du Mal:
You! –hypocrite reader! –my likeness! –my brother!
--Baudelaire understands you as a complicit double, a sort of mirroring force for the lyric voice. Baudelaire does not care to understand you as sister, as woman, as femme. This is because Baudelaire is an asshole.

--Baudelaire aside, there are other ways you can use you. Take a look at "Drug Facts" by Lauren Trembath-Neuberger (and please be aware before reading on that this piece discusses self-harm). The work assumes a found form (a shell, and you should check out Chelsea Biondolillo’s thoughts on shells if you haven’t yet) that you’re undoubtedly familiar with. You’ve seen medical warnings before. But probably not quite like this:
Never ask your mother, your girlfriend, your best friend, or anyone at all, except for married, male, suburban, balding dentists, doctors, and lawyers before use, as they will advise against it. Your family and friends don’t know you. Your mother hasn’t spoken to you without sobbing since you came out. She doesn’t know what you need, doesn’t know how good it will feel to have purpose, to be certain of your body, to know its uses. They don’t know this sex for money thing will keep you from slicing into your skin with that razor, from drawing beads of hot, wet blood to the surface. No, if you want to get paid you’ll have to stop, stop all of that self-injury bullshit. You’ll have to wipe your eyes. You’ll look fertile, red-cheeked and pleasant all hours. Your body will be clear of hair and baby-soft. Child, this drug will pull you out of the queer shithole that has somehow swallowed your life. Don’t ask anyone before use. You need this. You do.
--The 2nd person here serves a dual purpose, in that it assumes the typical abstracted medical-didactic position as it offers bracing, specific particulars: beads of blood, a sobbing mother, and a queer shithole. It’s unlikely that you share the precise position articulated and attributed to you here. You’re given a kind of intimacy with the speaker—a pathway to interiority—and at the same time you’re pushed away from the standard author-topic-audience confessional triad.

--That’s what’s so special about this type of you—the way you can draw near and draw back at the same time.

--You make your students read Brian Oliu’s “Donkey Kong” and they teach you that sometimes a you can serve as a grounding element. The steady rhythmic repetition turns the 2nd person into a sort of touchstone, giving the reader a stable position from which to consider the lyric essay's disparate and painfully melancholic images: the unclimbable ladder, the floating hammer, the tie that morphs into a noose. You are thankful for this, as you had not thought of it that way before.

--You think that maybe the best use of the 2nd person you can remember reading is in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, particularly passages like these:
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.

You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.

Why do you feel okay saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, be propelled forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.

As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and the before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens 
and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.


The new therapist specializes in trauma counseling. You have only ever spoken on the phone. Her house has a side gate that leads to a back entrance she uses for patients. You walk down a path bordered on both sides with deer grass and rosemary to the gate, which turns out to be locked.

At the front door the bell is a small round disc that you press firmly. When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?

It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps, you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh, she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.

I am so sorry, so, so sorry.
--Like “Drug Facts”, Citizen seeks to rupture the seemingly smooth surface of audience position. But Rankine’s sense of you is more accumulative and expansive, not as fixed as Trembath-Neuberger’s. Citizen catalogs well over a dozen such incidents of everyday violence, and in doing so it cuts against structural lines, exposing the radical differences in subject position that are sometimes elided by grammatical personage. What’s your relation to this sort of violence? How familiar with it are you? From where do you witness it? And dear reader—dear white reader—how are you (how are we) complicit in it?

--Your students ask you if they can write essays for workshop in the 2nd person, and you tell them yes, of course you can. These essays your students bring in are almost always good, usually very good, and often much, much better than your own efforts.

--The 2nd person sometimes allows an easier angle for engaging with trauma, for rendering wounds visible, for writing pain. Your students write movingly and powerfully about erasure, about surviving sexual assault, about abuse, about the violences that most often go unspoken. You are humbled, and you are grateful.


Will Slattery helps curate things here at Essay Daily. You can find him on Twitter: @wjaslattery.

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