When I began research for this essay, I was surprised to discover how little information is readily available about the first-person direct address. It’s a technique I’ve often seen mistaken for the second-person point-of-view, even in creative writing workshops, but it’s distinctly different. So where is deviation? Let’s take a look.
What is first person direct?
In second-person, the narrator is the reader; the author is inserting the reader as a character in the story. With first-person direct address, however, the narrator is speaking to another character within the story, directly addressing them, or narrating their story to this character. It recalls for me the genre of the monologic epistolary, but a spoken address rather than a written one. In this essay by Laura Spence-Ash on CRAFT, she says that “there is an intimacy there between the characters that keeps the reader at bay.” When used effectively, the direct address can establish a deep connection between characters, but overuse can lead to melodrama. Below, I touch briefly on a few stories where this technique is working especially well.
Where is it used?
Caiman by Bret Anthony Johnston
In Bret Anthony Johnston’s “Caiman,” first published in AGNI, a father brings home a caiman for his young son, Danny. The story spans only a few minutes and is largely centered around discussion of the disappearance of a local girl, around Danny’s age. Meanwhile, Danny is lurking in the periphery, planning a “sneak attack” on his parents. The story begins, “Your mother wouldn’t let me bring the ice chest into the house, so I left it in the garage.” We’re told this event happened “years ago,” and the narrator is now relating the story to his son from a point in the future. “You were seven, a boy who liked bedtime stories with fantastic monsters and twisty, unexpected endings. You liked sneaking up on us.” There’s a familiarity in the language, a casual exchange between two people who know each other well. This is the intimacy that Laura refers to in the above CRAFT essay. This is how things were, the father is saying.
“And then, with the wind shut out, we could hear your boots on the floor in the hallway. You were stalking toward us, planning one of your sneak attacks. You mother sipped her beer. The flour was on her neck—it looked like snow, like a smeared galaxy—and she was smiling a little. I understood what she didn’t: you’d been awake the whole time, listening to us.”
Space by Kevin Brockmeier
In “Space,” by former TMR Anthology judge Kevin Brockmeier, the narrator is speaking to his deceased wife, Della. The power has gone out in their house, and he’s sitting on his porch watching the stars in the dark night sky, filling Della in on all that’s been happening in their lives. This is how things are now, the husband is saying. Although the direct address doesn’t appear explicitly until the third page (“You would have loved this sound, Della,”) there is a brief hint about whom this story is addressed to earlier, when the narrator refers to Eric as “our son.” “Space” is a sentimental story, but Brockmeier deftly avoids emotional manipulation, an easy trap to fall into in a story about a husband talking to his dead wife. The moments of direct address are spaced well and only deployed in the most powerful and lyrical moments.
“I am afraid, Della, that as I climb from the well of this time into days of habit and quiet persistence, into weekends and birthdays and sudden new seasons, the things that I know of you will slip quietly away from me.”
Never Marry a Mexican by Sandra Cisneros
“Never Marry a Mexican” waits longer than the other stories I discuss here to utilize the first-person direct address, but without it, it would not be the same story. It occurs about a third of the way through, after the character of the narrator has firmly been established (her history, and the argument which explains the title: “Never marry a Mexican my ma said once and always. She said this because of my father,”). The direct address serves not only as an introduction for the character, but also as a turn in the story, a refocusing. “Drew, remember when you used to call me your Malinalli?… You said I was beautiful, and when you said it, Drew, I was.” And Cisneros doesn’t limit herself in this story, either: the addressee switches without hesitation between Drew and Drew’s son. “All I know is I was sleeping with your father the night you were born.” The story after the turn, after the direct address is introduced, refocuses from who the narrator was as a result of her parents to who the narrator is now, as a result of her relationship with Drew.
“It was the last time I was going to be with your father… Besides, he could never marry me. You didn’t think…? Never marry a Mexican.”
We Didn’t by Stuart Dybeck
Stuart Dybeck’s lyrical “We Didn’t” seems to differ from the other stories discussed here; at first glance, it appears to be a story told in the first-person plural. “We didn’t in the light; we didn’t in darkness,” the story begins. But in fact, the story is taking the first-person direct address to another, more intimate level. It’s an examination of all the times the narrator and the addressee, his girlfriend, didn’t have sex. “We could have composed a Kama Sutra of interrupted bliss.” If this story is told in a simple, ordinary first-person perspective, it would lose much of its lyricism. This couple shares a traumatic experience at the beach on the evening they come closest to sex, when the body of a pregnant woman washes up on shore. It’s a collective experience, but the story doesn’t speak for the collective; it only speaks for the male narrator: this is an ode to their relationship, all the times they tried, but didn’t. “We made not doing it a wonder, and yet we didn’t, we didn’t, we never did.”
“But what if we had found her? What if after we had – you know,” you said, your eyes glancing away from mine and your voice tailing into a whisper, “what if after we did it, we went for a night swim and found her in the water?”
“But, Gin, we didn’t,” I tried to reason, though it was no more a matter of reason than anything else between us had ever been.