Writing ‘in-tense’ Memories
By Carol Clouse
I remember when I was only seven years old and my grandmother took me to the park. There was a gentle stream with green headed ducks, and we would feed them bread. I toss pieces out into the water, and watch them float briefly until a duck plunges into the water and smacks his bills and swallows my soggy duck treat. They fight over the morsels, as wings flap and flutter. And this drove my editor insane.
When I write memories I have a tendency to really go there. I start out in past tense, introducing the scene as a place I was or had been to, and then before I know it I am there, alive in the scene and typing away in present tense. In my mind I am there, and the keyboard is subconsciously somewhere else. This brings about a vivid and engaging truth to my story. I can hear the dialogue, I can see the colors, I can smell the landscape, and I can feel my emotions. While this makes for a very powerful remembering, it does not make for easy reading.
“A story that is being told in the past”, as my editor put it, “should be told entirely in the past.” It was a bit painful at first to take my present tense memories and re-write them in past tense, and I fought for my intense present tense territory. I had just breezed through The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk, and recalled it being a vivid and captivating read. Surely that would prove my point. I scanned page after page only to find that the entire book had been written in past tense. Editing ensued and in the end my piece was not only grammatically correct, but it was now free and clear of reader speed bumps.
So, did I switch to writing my memories in past tense? No, not really. I write it down however is comes out, and go back later for the tense check. For me, writing in the present produces a livelier story that would not necessarily emerge in similar brilliance if I consciously typed it all out in past tense. Yes, I’ll need to do a re-write, but that is something I can implement in a removed manner. If writing your memories flows easier in present tense, then I say let them flow. Just be prepared to revisit those mindful memories, and put them in the past.