Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Second Person POV "Taste Test"

Erotic themes have been a mainstay of my writing since college, but I didn’t have the guts to write what I’d officially call “erotica” until the fall of 1997. That’s when I was almost literally possessed by a story I titled “The Blindfold.” It took me many months of revision and polishing and interviewing a fencer and acting scenes out with my husband to get it into something close to final form. I originally wrote it in first person, but a senior member of my writing group suggested second person and because he seemed very cool and was published in literary magazines, I took his suggestion and tried it on for size. I was very pleased with the results. The story seemed all the more personal and exciting and edgy in second person—as we’ve discussed here.

Like any first love, I had high expectations for my baby and sent her out to the now defunct Yellow Silk and Libido and any literary magazine in Writer’s Market that deigned to consider erotica. Form rejections came back by return mail, but finally, in the winter of 1999, the editor of a small literary journal called Rain Crow, accepted it enthusiastically for his first issue. (This editor also worked at Playboy and said my story was better than what they were publishing on their website, which led to a brief gig there before the erotica feature was canceled).

In the meantime, I’d submitted the story to an online writing workshop, Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope. Most readers enjoyed it, but one guy wrote this about the POV:

One of the immediate problems with addressing a you in a story is that the you already knows most of the information you're relating so it becomes self-conscious exposition. When you recount the saber story who are you telling it to? He already knows it. So it's for the reader's benefit. Same with the father's heart attack. When the mechanics of the story show you have problems -- unless that's your intent as it would be with a postmodern story. But this is entirely conventional, realistic fiction. If you move to "him" instead of "you" the story-telling aspect of the piece would come more naturally to the fore. Also, with a you the reader is excluded as audience. In first person narratives you contextualize for an audience, that is, you'd tell the story differently to your priest than your best girlfriend. But here you're telling the story to a you -- but you want the reader to read. I think you should reconsider the mode of address.

I thought he was a pompous ass and didn’t listen to him. The story was reprinted as the first prize winner of the Absinthe Literary Review’s erotica issue. Later, in response to a call for a death and sex anthology, I revised the story to make it more “deathy and sexy.” In many ways this new version was better because I didn’t hold back as much in the sex scenes, but along the way I decided to try revising it back to first person as something “more acceptable.” Rejected by the first anthology, this first person version of the story was taken by Clean Sheets, then reprinted in Best Mammoth 6 and Alison Tyler’s Love at First Sting. For all you newbies to writing, remember this history—tons of rejections up front, five reprints in the end. Perseverance is the key in the writing life!

Anyway, I’m posting the same passage of “The Blindfold” and “Blinded” here for comparison--a taste test of first and second person POV. This section I excerpt immediately follows the introduction, a brief passage that describes the first time the man blindfolds the woman and gives her a bruising kiss. Which version do you prefer?

From "The Blindfold"

That was the beginning. I've lost count of how many times we've done it since then, but it's gotten us through this long winter. Sometimes you blindfold me. Sometimes I blindfold you. It all depends on who comes up with a new idea. It's never the same. That's our unspoken rule.

Not that it's entirely unpredictable. You seem to prefer that I wear some sort of clothing: one of your shirts or a teddy, something you can eventually slip off. After more than a year together, it still excites you to uncover my breasts, weigh them in your hands as if you are touching them for the first time. That's one of the things I like about you.

I prefer you to be completely naked. The first time I blindfolded you, I was the one who was trembling. Although it was my idea that you kneel on the bed wearing nothing but the blindfold, when you actually began to undress with a cool smile, I almost told you to stop. I wasn't sure I really wanted to see your big body so exposed, a band of flowered silk over your eyes with the long, loose ends falling softly down your back. I thought it might somehow diminish you.

But I was wrong. I'd never realized how beautiful your body was. Not that I hadn't appreciated it before, but I'd always focused my gaze on your eyes, your expressions. The rest of you I knew better by touch. But now, with your eyes hidden, I could see you with a new clarity: the taut curves of your arms and chest, the hint of soft flesh at your waist that I found oddly pleasing. I noticed that the hair on your belly fanned out more luxuriantly to the left, and by contrast, your right thigh was slightly more muscular, a legacy of your college fencing days. It didn't take long for you to get hard--it never did when we used the blindfold--and I got to watch that, the delicate jerking movements of your penis as it rose and thickened, drawn upward by invisible puppet strings which, I imagined, led straight to my hands.

I felt like a thief.

From "Blinded"

That was the beginning. I've lost count of how many times we've done it since then, but it's gotten us through this long winter. Sometimes he blindfolds me. Sometimes I blindfold him. It all depends on who comes up with a new idea. It's never the same. That's our unspoken rule.

Not that it's entirely unpredictable. He seems to prefer that I wear some sort of clothing: one of his shirts or a teddy, something he can eventually slip off. After more than a year together, it still excites him to uncover my breasts, weigh them in his hands as if he is touching them for the first time. That's one of the things I like about him.

I prefer him to be completely naked. The first time I blindfolded him, I was the one who was trembling. Although it was my idea that he kneel on the bed wearing nothing but the blindfold, when he actually began to undress with a cool smile, I almost told him to stop. I wasn't sure I really wanted to see his big body so exposed, a band of flowered silk over his eyes with the long, loose ends falling softly down his back. I thought it might somehow diminish him.

But I was wrong. I'd never realized how beautiful his body was. Not that I hadn't appreciated it before, but I'd always focused my gaze on his eyes, his expressions. The rest of him I knew better by touch. But now, with his eyes hidden, I could see him with a new clarity: the taut curves of his arms and chest, the hint of soft flesh at his waist that I found oddly pleasing. I noticed that the hair on his belly fanned out more luxuriantly to the left, and by contrast, his right thigh was slightly more muscular, a legacy of his college fencing days. It didn't take long for him to get hard--it never did when we used the blindfold--and I got to watch that, the delicate jerking movements of his penis as it rose and thickened, drawn upward by invisible puppet strings which, I imagined, led straight to my hands.

I felt like a thief.

11 comments:

Craig Sorensen said...

First, the photo that opens this blog is very, very sexy. Very simple, very suggestive.

Second (hmmm, second?) I read through both passages and my reaction was stronger to the second person depiction. It got my heart pounding faster. It's a great scene either way, but I definitely think the second person strengthens the scene.

An example of what really got to me was this: ...it still excites you to uncover my breasts, weigh them in your hands as if you are touching them for the first time. That's one of the things I like about you.

This had a tactile, shared sense in second person that is not possible in third person.

Truly, you're inspiring me to try my hand at another second person story.

Either way, though, I can see why it got published five times.

Donna said...

Thanks for your very nice comments, Craig!

Second person is sounding better all the time, isn't it? I wonder why it's considered so dangerous?

I'm looking forward to reading your forbidden story ;-).

Erobintica said...

This is so wonderful seeing a snippet with the different POVs.

I agree with Craig - the second person version got a much stronger reaction - and that's not only because it's the first time I read it.

Second person always reminds me of writing a letter to someone (a very sexy letter in this case) - I just realized that as I was comparing the two versions - trying to put my finger on what it was that made me like that one.

Do you think it was the change in POV that got it accepted? Hard to tell unless you'd submitted both to the same place - has anyone ever done that? Hmmmm.

I've been working on revising a story today - one I hadn't looked at for a bit. But I do think I might try a 2nd when I start something new - just for the fun of it.

Thanks Donna! What's tomorrows lesson???? ;-)

Donna said...

Robin, I am thrilled this little exercise inspired you in your own work!

Part of the reason I revised it was to make it a "new" story, freshen it up a bit. But to be honest, I far prefer the second person.

I'll be posting a few second person snippets from other writers, but I have a few more "lessons" in writing planned as well. More like discussion topics really. With awesome blog friends like you guys, these discussions get pretty compelling!

Isabel Kerr said...

They are both very beautiful but I have to agree, I get so much more intimately involved with the second person rendition. It's like a love letter, a testament to the lover.

But it is clear, they are both very moving.

Thanks Donna, it is really so helpful to read about other's processes, it is very inspiring.

Jeremy Edwards said...

Very interesting to see these side by side (well, above and below—but you know what I mean)!

I think both POVs work admirably, but there's definitely a difference in tone, imo. How fascinating that this is so with every single word the same, apart from pronouns. But, yeah, like Robin and Isabel, the first version made me think "letter," a love letter. As the reader, I felt like I was being given the sexy privilege of glimpsing the couple's intimacy. The first-person version, by contrast, made me, the reader, feel intimate with the narrator—like she's my best friend, telling me about her erotic experiences. So the intimacy is situated on a different axis in the narrator-lover-reader triangle.

By the way, one of my favorite elements (in both versions) is the revelation of how his being blindfolded prompts her to see things differently. Brilliant twist!

EllaRegina said...

I agree with Robin, Isabel and Jeremy re the "love letter" aspect the 2nd person version had. I felt like I was secretly reading a love letter not written to me, and the "verboten" occasion of my seeing those words made it all the more exciting in its intimacy.

It's encouraging to hear your timeline, from painful rejections to ultimate acceptance and then reprints ad infinitum. I don't know how you did that, though. I would have thrown in the towel, jumped out a window or both (I would have used the towel to land on and save people some clean up). You must have nerves of steel.

MB (Leah) said...

Count me in with preferring the Second POV. It came across as way more intimate, something deep shared between two people. This as opposed to the First person version, which felt distant, like someone outside looking in and describing what they saw.

Donna said...

Thanks for stopping by, MB. Well, hmm, too bad the first person was the one to really go public!

I got such shit for the second person. Maybe it's the fact I was consorting with literary writers, sniff.

Jeremy's (and everyone's) points about the relationship of the reader and the POV is really sinking in. It places us in a different voyeuristic relationship. The second person is more immediate and more forbidden, in that we are eavesdropping. The first person singles us out as the confidante, so we don't have to feel bad about hearing these salacious things, lol.

Neve Black said...

Sorry to be tuning into the POV party late. I'm truly enjoying this thought provoking conversation, Donna.

I'm seriously thinking about changing my POV perspective now for a story I've been working on over the past few weeks. It's missing something. Changing the POV is a excellent way to taste taste your work before serving it to the guests. :-)

Blindfold is wonderful.

Thank you!

Emerald said...

I find it really interesting how distinctly different the feel was for me reading each of them. I don't know if I would have predicted this, but in the second-person version, I felt like a voyeur — like I was watching them and the story was being narrated around me. With the first-person version, I felt like the story was being told to me, and after the fact. The second-person version seemed more immediate to me for some reason, as though it were happening right then and I was watching (which is interesting because either way she's speaking about things that happened in the past). Huh. Fascinating!

I don't know if I would say I prefer one over the other. I have to admit that I'm not certain I wasn't biased simply by which one I read first, you know? If I'd read the first-person version first, I might have gotten used to that and the second-person version would then have been based against that for comparison/contrast. As it was, it was the other way around, and that may have been influential in the way I compare them. In reading Craig's and Robin's responses, I noticed it resonated with me when both of them said they responded more strongly to the second-person version, and I notice Robin even accounts for the possibility of it being because she read it first. :)

Also, wow, I have to say that I started this comment before I started reading others' comments — and I just read that Jeremy said almost the exact thing I said above. Well, Jeremy, at least I feel like I know exactly what you mean! :) Oh, and now I just read that Donna says almost the same thing in a later comment as well (perhaps I should read these first, lol).

Like Craig, I feel somewhat inspired about second-person pov now. :) I have never written a story in second person, and this one really highlights the potential of it, it seems to me. Beautifully done. Thanks for sharing this!