How to Write a Story in the Second-Person Imperative

Read Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help. There is much to be learned, much to be stolen. Bad poets borrow, great poets steal. Certainly Eliot’s maxim must apply, too, to fiction. Convince yourself that it does. Convince yourself that you’re not the billionth person to think so.

Avoid Junot Díaz’s second-person narratives. “How to Date a Blackgirl, Whitegirl, Browngirl or a Halfie” is basically slangified Lorrie Moore anyway, and the newer stories may be in second person, but they are not, most of them, in the imperative. This will be confusing; it will fuck up your swagger. His voice is too strong for you, homeboy—you will start to write things to yourself, things that are utterly untrue. Things like, “Negro, you had mad sucias back in the day.” And you’re not a negro or a Dominican, and you never had sucias, and the shit would all—don’t you see?—be wildly inappropriate and, like, weak, bro. W-to-the-E-to-the-A-to-the-K.

You’re still sort of doing it, jacking his stilo. Stop.

Stick to Lorrie Moore. Fling out puns, have flings with puns. Break out that list of words you always wanted to put in stories, words like limn and lugubrious—those Michiko Kakutani words, words you wanted to use but couldn’t because no one really talks that way or uses them (except, of course, Michiko Kakutani). No one, that is, but you, and what is this imperative mood if not you talking, and not only talking but talking to yourself? If you can’t talk to yourself in your own voice then you’re totally fucked and you simply should not be writing in the second-person imperative.

But you’ve already begun the story and you can’t stop now. Especially not you—you don’t have a lot of ideas, so when you have one (or when you steal one, as it were), you are chained to that story, however terrible it continues to be. It is yours. Embrace it. Literally embrace it. Clutch the manuscript to your chest in agony. It’s not good, but it is yours. Keep it. Keep at it.

Hit a good stride. You will string words together with a reckless joy the likes of which you haven’t known in years. Make those verbs count—1, 2, 3!—for they have a heavy burden to bear, limited as you are in your conjugational options. Start to believe that you can do it, finish a story in the second-person imperative.

But don’t let the work go too well. That wouldn’t be like you. Sabotage yourself a bit. Read DFW’s “Forever Overhead” and immediately throw your manuscript in the trash. Surrender to the bite of jealousy. “It wasn’t enough,” you say, “that you did first person and third better than I? You just had to go and grand-slam the imperative, too, didn’t you, Dave?” Get no reply to your questions.

Your story will never be anywhere near that good. Learn this, deal with it. Go back to the trashcan, dig out those crumpled pages, start retyping them. Tell yourself, “It’s just so I have a clean copy, one that’s not covered in coffee grounds and limp lettuce.” Sneak in another lugubrious, just because. Fiddle with a few commas along the way; find some synonyms that sound more sonorous. Alliterate gratuitously—Nabokov never did the imperative, so if you interpolate his style, it’ll seem striking, novel. Search for a way to make “novel” more like a real pun, a pun worthy of Lorrie Moore.

Look at them when you finish that revision, those pristine white pages with Garamond sprinkled on them like so much pepper. Throw them away, too. They are no better for being clean. Tired metafiction, metafiction for the tired. Too lugubrious to be salvageable, to be a salve, a slave, or a valse. Pat yourself on the back, though, for bursts of free-association anagramming.

Susurrus. You definitely ought to work in a susurrus. Get away with two, if you can.

Cringe when you discover that a former classmate has published a story called “How to Leave.” (It might occur to you that there’s a great pun in there: How to leave? Like a tree!) Then read it and feel relief flood your vain veins. It limns a territory so Lorrie Mooreish that you pity her—your former classmate, that is, not Lorrie Moore. You realize you can do it. You, too, can get a derivative second-person-imperative story published. Riffle and rifle through that trashcan again. You will be forever haunted by the ghost of that manuscript if you don’t retrieve it.

Tell this to your writer friends, who will sympathize. Say, “I would’ve been forever haunted by the ghost of that manuscript if I hadn’t retrieved it.” Pretend that you didn’t steal this from Nabokov.

Finish the damn thing. Stop using the thesaurus, stop agonizing over euphony. Send it out. Send it to the Boston Review, where Yunior (ahem) Junot Díaz is the fiction editor. Get rejected. Mail it to the upper-echelon mags: The New Yorker, Paris Review, Esquire. Get rejected. Settle for sending out to second-tier rags, the ones where the name of a state is followed by the word Review. Get rejected. Hesitate to give in to the abject temptation to submit it to an online journal, where it will disappear like a coin tossed into the Atlantic (tragically, not into The Atlantic).

Gulp down a bottle of wine and, in a storm of absolute despair, write a letter to Lorrie Moore apologizing for your unoriginality, but include the story anyway. Ask her to read it. Lick the envelope closed with your wine-stained lips and chuckle at the thought of spreading your germs to Lorrie Moore, long-distance-style. Stamp it and send it. Don’t think twice, it’s alright. Don’t look back, you should never look back.

Weeks later, tear open a letter from Lorrie Moore. Cry the sweetest tears you’ve ever cried when you read, “This story is derivative and lugubrious, but thank you for thinking of me.” Cry yourself a river and swim in it. When you’ve soaked half a box of Kleenex, start over. Write a story called “How to Elicit Hateful Words from Lorrie Moore.” And make that shit lugubrious.  

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