The Second Person Study, Part 18: Jim Miller, “Book of Puzzles” from Fiction Fix

Photo by Alix

Photo by Alix

Readers: Don’t be afraid. Let go and take a ride. You will be amazed at the worlds you can discover if you are willing to set aside your notions of the world. Sometimes the most thrilling ride at a carnival is the one ride where you have no expectations and no control.

Writers: Don’t be afraid. Let go and take a ride. You will be amazed at the freedom you have when you can step into the shoes of your character and let him/her guide you. Yes, its hard work. Yes, it is dangerous work…but if we walk away because its hard and dangerous then how will we ever build anything?
Jim Miller

Hello, I am Zin! And I have another story for The Second Person Study!

I “met” Jim Miller (hello, Jim!) electronically when he left a comment about The Second Person Study last summer. He is a writer who teaches Creative Writing at the University of South Florida, and does not cluck and wag a finger at second person! He recommended “Scordatura” by Mark Ray Lewis – which I loved and included!

Now I can look at his own second person story, “Book of Puzzles” which was recently published in Fiction Fix; you can read it online!

Since I was lucky enough to have access to the author, and he was willing, I asked some questions and he graciously answered them:

1. We start in third person and do not realize it is second person until we get to the second paragraph. Is this deliberate? Is it a show of first impressions? Or some other purpose?
This was sort of done on purpose—by this I mean early drafts started a bit different mostly in the “you.” Except that wasn’t working. Second person can be tricky and there is no “right” way to execute it. In early drafts of this story, because the narrative was so internal, I had a hard time getting the narrator to work for me. As I edited the story, I shifted the focus of the intro because I wanted (needed) to hook the reader right away, and for me Michelle was such an interesting image that I had to start with her. It seemed to me that if we (the reader) start looking at someone else, then we are more willing to walk in the narrator’s shoes…

2. The second person seems to intensify the alienation the narrator feels from his life, his marriage – as does his not having a name, is that deliberate?
Yes and No.

Yes, I find second person allows me to create distance between reader and narrator. If I wrote this in first person, for example, then we the reader would be inside his head and would risk coming off a lot more emotional and quite possibly melodramatic. Second person allows me (the writer) to somewhat control the reader’s experience. (Which is possibly why a lot of people are uncomfortable with second person POV) With this control, I can steer the reader to the exact place I need him/her with out having to narrate a reason (nor allowing the reader the time to question the motives) For example, when we make a decision we wrestle with the pros and cons. In first person, the reader would see this thought process. In second person our narrator doesn’t wrestle…he acts—and we follow.

No- Not having a name was deliberate because I never found a reason to give him one but I didn’t do it to create alienation…that was just an added benefit.

3. The alienation Sarah feels is manifest in her crosswords – it is inconceivable a shrink would not know those answers, so she is using it as he is using the class, to avoid talking to him. Odd for a shrink! the puzzle book seems a metaphor for Sarah and their marriage, and he seems ready now to put in the time and effort to work on it! What I do not quite understand is that before she was the only one working on it, and it seems she was not working that hard, or that well.
I’m not sure how to respond to this…except to say that when I create my characters, I tend to try and humanize them by giving them the quirks the break past what we (as readers) would expect. For example, I know this person in real life. She is pretty smart and works for a software company…yet, at the same time she can easily be described as a “dim-bulb”. So if you meet her for the first time, your initial response might be “how does this person manage to get dressed every morning” or “how does she have a job at that company, doing that work.” She is smart in her field, but it takes her a while to figure out life outside of that field…she’s complicated, yet simple, and a lot of time this frustrates her friends and family. I see this complication in people all around me…truth be told I am complicated like that too…in my own way. Its what makes people unique and not cliché. My characters often tend to share these qualities. I ask the reader to forgive their shortcomings…but are they shortcomings? Not really sure.

4. In addition to second person, I have always heard there is a prohibition against writing about writers! Did you deliberately make him a writer? That seems to further the alienation between him and his life, how he looks at everything as a potential script, seeing Michelle as all character and no plot, seeing himself as the bourgeois cheating husband, even seeing the little boy as an actor in a commercial!
I think there is this unwritten rule…but not really a rule. I think what it is (and I have done this to my discredit) as a writer, when I read a book or story about a writer, my initial response is to prejudge the author with thoughts like…”I get it…write what you know” (sarcasm)….or more jerkish….”what, you couldn’t come up with something more original than a writer?” So call me a hypocrite, right. Please note, that often it is an initial response…if the writer is successful, I will set that aside pretty quick and fall into the narrative. When I teach, I explain to my students we will learn all the rules to good story telling and we look at stories that are deemed “excellent.” I tell them this is necessary so that we can break those rules when we need to…and then we read stories that break the rules and see how they are executed. As I said, I’m not always a big fan of writers writing about writers, except this time it sort of made sense. I guess I could have given him a different job, but then it would have been a different story. His being a writer created an environment for his predicament. Being a screenwriter works for our narrator on many levels…first, exactly as you mentioned…his life is a script as he is looking for the perfect script. Which is why he is a screenwriter—not a novelist. Let’s compare scripts and novels…Scripts are scaled down…all plot…all dialogue…where as in a novel you get all that and more. You get complications and context and depth. This is why he struggles with Michelle being all character. Michelle is a novel…and he needs a script. Also, I think his profession works well in this case because of his character flaws. By this I mean, as a screenwriter…driven toward success we see that he is willing to sell out his art for the sake of his art. “I’ll write this crap…to get my idea done. Let me preface that I am not a screenwriter nor do I know any (that I know of), so my interpretation of what they do is hearsay based on preconceived notions derived from pop culture…that said, I think compromise and capitulation seem to go hand in hand in screenwriting. I just watched the other night an episode of Family Guy…it was the one where a network picks up Brian’s touching and heartfelt screenplay and turns it into tv crap. Brian caves in to the pressure just to get it made…so much so that it is no longer recognizable. As a reader, I see this far too often…when a book is translated into a movie…so many times the heart is ripped out of the book and left on the cutting room floor. So my gross generalization here…and I know it is a gross generalization…was injected into the narrator.

5. His looking at the puzzle book, filling in the answers, is the beginning of change? Of meeting his wife half way?
As with most reading, the end is subjective to the reader, right? But my goal, my understanding of the narrator was that he missed what he had with his wife. He wanted it back. This was his way to let her know he was still in.

6. We have a shrink who can not deal with her life but buries herself in crossword puzzles; and a self-actualization teacher who is married to a cheat and a thug. The narrator does not seem so bad in comparison to them! All he has done is sell out to write a stupid tv show!
Yes…on the surface. The thing is, because of the story we do not really know his wife. We don’t get to know why. So in a way, it is really unfair to her, right? We never get to hear from her. We only get to see what the (second person) narrator lets us see. We get to see more interaction with Michelle…and through this second person viewpoint, how can we not feel sorry for her? Which means what…I don’t really know. I think what will happen is the reader will decide. By design, my goal was to make the situation a complicated gray scale. No black and white, but shades of gray.

7. I really like how he capitulates so easily, with Sarah and the first conversation about the script that is like the movie, and with her in using crosswords to avoid dealing with their marriage. And in class, when Michelle tells him he lets himself get talked out of ideas, he does not think so but then he does, so he lets her talk him out of his idea! It is wonderful irony! And that is the change really, he stops capitulating to Michelle when he tells her she is not the type he would leave his wife for, and picks up the puzzle book?

I get nervous when I say that a protagonist has changed…because on a very basic level I don’t really believe a person changes…I think people are hardwired. Now they might alter their behavior and they may be successful. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they have changed the wiring…only the behavior. What I think happens here (and again this is reader subjective) is that the protagonist is aware of his behavior and realizes that he needs to alter it. He alters his behavior…but he will need to maintain it. And that is where the question lies…can he?

8. Why did you use second person for this story – what does it do that first or third would not accomplish as well?
Narrative distance is the short answer but it could be argued that I don’t know what I’m talking about with that answer. Narrative distance is how close you want the reader to be to the narrator. 1st person plants the reader inside the head while 3rd plants the reader as a fly on the wall (generally speaking). I wanted neither. I use second person when I want my readers to cast aside their life for a while and walk a mile in the narrator’s shoes. Which in a way (to me anyway) is narrative distance. In this story, readers are roleplaying…they get to live the narrator’s life and while they personally may not do the same thing, they will most likely judge him and they may hate him, they may love him…but if I did my job right, they will understand (empathize with) him.

9. You have said (in our earlier conversations) you like second person – why? Have you always liked it?
I think I have liked second person POV since I was a kid. I used to love those “you choose the story” type books. The ones that at the end of a page ask you to choose the next step…I liked that I was living the story. I got to pretend to solve crimes or find treasure. I also liked that I had control. I think that’s why I like it in my fiction…I get to drag the reader into an active role in the story…and I get to control where they go. Yep, I get to keep control…sort of funny huh? But I would love to write a new version of second person….a hybrid if you will. One where I give the reader a choice (just like those old books) and relinquish that control. In the end, however, I would write it so that all paths lead to the same conclusion. (so I don’t really relinquish any control). I have an idea for this, but I haven’t done it yet.

10) You find many of your students have been told to keep away from second person, and when submitting your own work have been advised to switch POV by editors. I do not have a specific question but I would like to discuss this more. I found some editors (of online journals) who were open to second person, but Randall Brown also said Rob Spillman of Tin House hates it and has someone else read and edit second person stories because he hates it so much! And I think a lot of beginning writers use second person because it is different and kind of poison the well! We can talk about these taboos maybe – “all character and no plot” is my downfall, but I recently encountered a couple of stories that were all character (I called it exposition because there was backstory and description) and no plot on purpose, because they ended on a moment of expectation, an intake of breath! I found them very exciting! And shifting POVs, especially having third person shift around a lot, is becoming kind of a big thing (see the Justin Taylor analysis of “Pet” by Deb Olin Unferth, is a Pushcart story that does this to great effect). Your turn! Discuss!
Where to start?

Let’s start with teachers…Why? Who knows. One thought could be simple. Maybe they believe beginning writers don’t have control of their craft yet? Maybe. Maybe teachers want their students to grasp the basics—plot, characterization, setting, etc.—and they believe second person techniques are a distraction to this. It seems reasonable. Maybe most teachers know they have a short amount of time with these students and second person often requires a lot more drafting than 1st or 3rd. Maybe the idea of reading 10 or 12 different early drafts of second person prose in one grading cycle scares them to the bone. It could very well be that these teachers come from an academic writing background that frowns on second person writing. Or maybe they simply don’t like second person narratives. I believe it’s a deeply personal reasoning and it’s hard for me to say because I like it and promote the use of second person in my classroom.

So why do I do it when I know it is going to require so much more work on my part as well as the student. It’s a challenge to the student. If they try it and they really work it, their work advances much faster than those who don’t try it. Maybe its because I know they will revise the narrative much more and through the revision process the work will be better, hence making my job of critiquing easier. or maybe it draws out the student writer’s work ethic…or the answer is D, all of the above. I’ve said it before, second person is about control…but then so is all of prose writing—control of reader expectations as well as control of language. I believe if my students put in the effort on second person, they learn this control in a different context…one that will serve them in all of their writing. Think about one of those stories you might have read where the first person narrative slips off topic and goes into some diatribe about this or that. When the reader is done, the scene is most likely viewed as “character development” and some might argue the scene could have been cut. In second person, the writer doesn’t have that luxury. Dragging the reader into a “you” type diatribe that doesn’t move the story forward is a trap. Students learn quickly that the reader is essential to the story and if they lose interest they will leave before the narrative ends. Because second person does tend to make the reader uneasy and it makes the reader work a little harder, it takes less to lose them…so the writer must keep them engaged. Teaching students to work through the difficulties of second person…working on the craft to keep readers engaged, improves their overall story telling skills work as well.

Because I enjoy second person, I have no reservations asking for it. I think ultimately, that’s the reasoning. Preference. If you enjoy it…no problem. If you hate second person…problem. So then, is the question why would someone hate it? We all have our own personal like and dislikes…so that’s kinda not a fair question. But I never claimed to be fair…so I will speculate. I’ve mentioned control a few times. I think that is what is happening here. When I was a kid, I liked that I could star in a story and have control…I think many of us do. It’s when the writer takes control away from the reader that we get some readers to go with it while others get viscerally perturbed. As well, some readers cannot ever imagine themselves as another person (or more realistically “that person”) and simply cannot connect at any level with the narrative. For example, in the case of “Scordatura” I have had two or three female students say they couldn’t “get into the story” because they weren’t male and they were not gay. But then they were perfectly fine with Lorrie Moore. So there’s that too.

Thank you, Jim, for the story and the discussion! And now, a few words about Jim, by Jim:

Jim Miller, some might say, was born with a pencil in one hand and a book in the other. His writing career started in 6th grade when he wrote a Science essay for whom he foolishly thought was the girl of his dreams. She got an A. He later earned an A for an 8th grade bully, sparing him a beat down of epic proportions. Through most of his adolescence however, his writing career fell to secret angst filled journals, silly revenge stories and trite song lyrics—all of which he promptly (and regretfully) destroyed upon finding them years later in a box under his bed. After a short career designing and copywriting for a super big ad agency proved that corporate cube farms are The Matrix, Jim, joined by his wife and children, moved to Florida where he received his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida. His work has been published by Midwestern Gothic, Palooka, Prime Number, Prick of the Spindle, Stymie, Alligator Juniper, and is forthcoming in Tigertail: A South Florida Annual. He is the Graphic Nonfiction editor for Sweet: a Literary Confection and founding co-editor of the new e-journal (ĕm): A Review of Text and Image. He teaches creative writing at the University of South Florida (go Bulls) and Eckerd College in St. Petersburg.

I have to add that I am a big fan of bios that introduce us to the person in an interesting way! So many start off with the intimidation factor, or dry lists of publications, and I am always happy to find a writer who is willing to let us know him as a person first!

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