AWP 2014 What Was Is: The Use of Present Tense in Creative Nonfiction

March 1, 2014 § 6 Comments

Seattle AWP Starbucks logoA guest blog from Erica Trabold :

Panelists: Kate Hopper, Hope Edelman, Bonnie Rough, Marybeth Holleman, Ryan Van Meter

Kate Hopper, panel moderator and author of Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood, says of her book: “I wanted a reader to walk with me through that experience.” Hopper’s simple statement—expressed in the past tense (the writing, of course, complete)—reveals her impulse to compose her memoir in the present tense. Hopper’s story sets the stage for a question and answer discussion with her fellow panelists about the creative nonfiction writer’s tense dilemma.

What are the benefits of writing memoir in the present tense?

1.     The writer can invite readers into lived experience.

2.     Writing in the present tense “allows the writer to be nimble,” says Ryan Van Meter. The writer can slow short periods of time, emphasizing certain events, situations, or feelings.

3.     As an exercise in prewriting, the present tense can become a vehicle for the writer to fall back into the moment being explored. Marybeth Holleman says this technique is often more reliable and specific than her actual notes, and she encourages students to begin the writing process through present tense exercises.

4.     Tension in a story builds naturally in the present tense.

What are the drawbacks of writing memoir in the present tense?

1.     “Point of view and tense are inevitable bedfellows,” says Hope Edelman. In the time it takes for a writer to sit down and write about an experience, that person has changed a great deal. The writer is then challenged to create an accurate character on the page.

2.     The present tense character has limited knowledge of the experience. Van Meter says sometimes the writer must make his or her insights “not feel so wise” by coming to preliminary, smaller conclusions that build.

3.     Readers have a harder time suspending disbelief in present tense narratives.

4.     Sometimes, reliving a sensitive experience through the present tense can be too much for the writer, particularly if the experience was traumatic.

How does present tense affect the way readers perceive experiences?

1.     Some readers come looking for answers, wanting to understand how the writer, a person who lived through a similar experience, dealt with it. Past tense works well for writers and readers with this particular goal.

2.     Other readers and writers want to relive the tension and uncertainty of an experience in real time, preferring present tense narratives.

With all of these insights in mind, Edelman reminds us that “remembering happens in the present tense.” However, using both present and past tense in a piece of writing is a considerable skill, and ultimately, there is no prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach to writing memoir. Authors, as well as their stories, are complex. Both past and present tense explorations of experience can serve a story well—the important thing is for an author to understand why.

Erica Trabold (@ericatrabold) is an essayist based in Omaha. This spring, she will finish an MA in English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and in the fall, she hopes to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing. Her essays have been published Seneca Review, Penumbra, and NEBRASKAland Magazine.

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