Thursday, June 21, 2012

Work in Progress: I Wrestle with the Present Tense vs. I Wrestled with the Present Tense

You know what’s hard?  Digging ditches in 100 degree heat.

You know what else is hard?  Switching a story from the past tense to the present tense.  I generally advise student writers not to put their story into the present tense unless there’s a very compelling reason to do so, unless the story must be written in the present tense, as it seems that this one I’m working on must be.  I want the immediacy and the unfolding action that hits the narrator at the same time it hits the reader.  I want a little bit of a tricky narrator, keeping her cards close to the vest as a way to protect herself, not to manipulate the story.  But I sure wish I would have figured all that out earlier in the process, as my sense is that it’s easier to write in the present tense if one starts out that way.

Going back, though, to make the switch is much more complicated than taking off the “ed”s on the verbs.  There’s the realization that one is using “is” way too many times in a row (i.e. She is running vs. She runs).  There’s navigating something that happened last week in the story that the first person narrator needs to talk about.  There’s the first person in the present tense, which somehow seems more incredibly narcissistic than the usual first person which already seems narcissistic enough to me (not that I don’t love the first person!).  There’s the sudden uptick in contractions that add all those apostrophes on the page—i.e. whereas I would have no problem writing “I was,” I balk at writing “I am,” and once you commit to “I’m,” there’s a look and sound that is totally different and seems to draw more attention to itself than the innocuous “I was.”

Yet, I’m confident that this switch to the present tense is the right thing for the story, and so I press on…80 percent confident with my decision, or perhaps 50 percent confident, or perhaps not even remotely confident at all at this particular moment—which pretty much describes about any aspect of the writing process, so at least this discomfort feels familiar.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.