I find few things more mentally perplexing to read or write than flash fiction. Good fiction should transport the reader into a perspective completely outside his own and challenge the reader both mentally and emotionally. Good flash fiction needs to be a complete, compact package, capable of standing on its own for a short span of pages while simultaneously providing the emotional impact of a novel. A friend of mine recently recommended that I read You, Me, and a Bit of We edited by S. Philip, an anthology that explores flash fiction and short stories from around the world written in the first person, first person plural, and the second person. I would highly recommend this anthology in turn.
I’ve rarely enjoyed writing in the second person, in part because it is seldom done well, and in part because when done well, it makes me uncomfortable. Good fiction in the first or third person takes one out of one’s self but leaves the reader’s sense of self predominantly intact; good fiction in the second person rattles one’s sense of self, the paradigm shift causing the reader not to be lost in the words, but subsumed and consumed by the story. I found myself fighting the narration—‘you walked down the hall,’ ‘you watched him die,’ ‘you failed,’—internally I protested each of these, yet knew that through reading, I had done these things. Through reading, I had become the culpable one, and so I had to suffer the consequences of whatever happened.
My need to reject any feelings of failure bothered me. However, thinking about the teens that I work with and how much they feel the need to achieve and perform well, I was not surprised that I had been conditioned to be uncomfortable, even afraid, of the idea of not being perfect or not succeeding. But learning to accept failure or other setbacks and recovering from them is an important part of life. Just like one needs to learn to accept criticism to grow, it is necessary to learn early and accept that sometimes there are no second chances, sometimes there is no opportunity to retake the test, or beg for a do-over. Instead, one’s ability to cope with personal failure and disappointment becomes the ultimate test of one’s character. It is how one handles and recovers from the worst moments of one’s life that forms the person one becomes. If failure and disappointment can be looked at more as an opportunity for growth than a personal indictment, one can become a more fully formed human being, and a more developed member of society.
As much as I did not like the feelings thrust upon me, I had to recognize the value of fiction as an agent for developing empathy and encouraging personal reflection, especially second person narratives. The stories that resonated with me most were the ones I wanted to fight against the most, that made me address my own fears and shortcomings. Sadness, fear, loneliness, and failure are among the more uncomfortable parts of the human condition, and among the emotions we try to avoid the most. But without these experiences, one cannot develop empathy or understanding for others. Good, intensely written fiction can bridge that gap, bringing emotional experiences to the reader despite the reality of the reader’s life. After all, to paraphrase J.K. Rowling, just because it’s happening in one’s head, why should that make it any less real, or any less formative an experience?