Present tension

I’ve been reading memoirs because, unbeknownst to me, I’ve been writing my own. This was pointed out by several readers of a previous blog AND my husband. “Nah. Am not”, I said. “I’m just writing stories of my youth because being young was way more fun than having bad knees and having to pee five times a night.”

The first one and a half memoirs I read were both written in the present tense. I waded through the first, not quite understanding my difficulty but feeling irked throughout most of the book. When I started the second one, again written in the present tense, it clicked why I was bugged. I was changing the verb tenses as I read.

In a huff, I deleted both from my e-reader and set about browsing Kobo’s library for a memoir not written in the present tense. For each one that looked interesting I googled excerpts to avoid another round of tense tension. I abandoned the quest, a crusader on a failed pilgrimage, after perusing a half dozen more which all adopted this – in my opinion – irritating device.

I turned to mystery author Louise Penny for satisfaction. Boy, can she tell a story. The past is the past and the present is the present. Character back-story is NOT provided like this: “She walks into the school library and sees the man who is to be her husband. He is alive. It is another 25 years before he is dead. She is happy. She relives the moment and she will relive it again and again, always in the present.”

I am genuinely puzzled why so many memoirs, the story of a life, are written in the present tense. Is it to give the story a sense of immediacy? This befuddles me because the act of looking back and considering a life is an act of reflection. You can’t tell the story in the present because it’s over. Recreating the past in the present is still the past. Confused? Of course you are!

Then there’s the business of the writer presenting action scenes from the past in the present tense, as though trying to convince me I’m in her mind, experiencing along with her. “I am walking into my dead mother’s room and surveying the closet. (Yes! I’m in the closet. How cool!) I look at her clothes and remember her fondness for blue. She has 70 blue blouses. (Wow, look at all those blue blouses!) I touch each one asking why 70?” Yes, why indeed. I’m not convinced. It just sounds phony to me.

As I finished Louise Penney’s book, The Cruelest Month, I went looking again for a memoir and remembered a review I’d read of The Liars’ Club. Now THAT’s a story. Written mostly in the past tense there are occasional paragraphs told as though an event is happening right at that moment but because it is used sparingly I DO feel like I’m there. It has a dreamy quality like those old silent movies, where every movement is kind of jerky. You feel the action but when the tense changes from present to past, you know you’re safe and genuinely in the present, far away from the scary thing that happened long ago.

That’s what I object to about a story from the past being told in the present tense. There is no relief. There is no processing and without hindsight and mulling, the story has no depth. You’re there and you can’t get out and you don’t know why which is very frustrating when the story is so bad you want it to be over.

I don’t know about you, but I spend a lot of time rehashing the past. No matter how much I wish I could relive it – and get it right – it is in the past. Period.


8 thoughts on “Present tension

  1. Bruce Goodman April 27, 2015 / 11:20 pm

    That’s interesting about writing in the present tense. I think the best memoirs ever written would be Janet Frame’s trilogy: To the Is-land, An Angel at my Table, and The Envoy from Mirror City. Of course Frame’s is followed a close second by my own memoirs (not written in the present tense).


    • redosue April 27, 2015 / 11:54 pm

      I’ve been busy “googling” both Janet Frame and Bruce Goodman. I found multiple citations for both and was particularly intrigued by the discovery that BG spent 33 years as a Catholic “monk”. It was the quotation marks around the word monk that really tornadoed up my curiosity.


      • Bruce Goodman April 28, 2015 / 12:15 am

        I put “monk” because people know sort of what a monk is but not a person in a religious order, such as a Jesuit, Franciscan, Dominican, Marist…. So I thought monk covered it…


  2. Julie Ethan April 28, 2015 / 3:04 am

    I wrote my memoir in past tense. whew!. But I share your present tense frustration. Sometimes it’s done so well you don’t notice, but when it’s not, nerve grating.


    • redosue April 28, 2015 / 10:15 am

      Whew. I’ll be able to read it when it’s published.


  3. Andy Oldham April 30, 2015 / 2:41 pm

    I enjoyed your post. I will be teaching a memoir writing course this fall as a discussion and handout piece. I will certainly give reference to your blog. Thanks for your consideration. Andy


    • redosue April 30, 2015 / 10:59 pm

      Thanks, Andy. I guess we all have our personal biases when it comes to reading. I’m not opposed to using the present tense in storytelling and I think it can work well in fiction but just don’t get it in memoirs.


      • Andy Oldham April 30, 2015 / 11:30 pm

        I don’t get it either. I have never thought of addressing it the way you have. It just seems to make more sense to write in first person and past tense in a memoir. I mean I want my great grandkids to know I wrote my own memoirs, lol.Thanks!


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