The Present Is Alive. The Past Can Be, Too.

March 31, 2021 § 12 Comments

By Maggie Pahos

My mom died when I was twenty-two, and four months later, I boarded a plane for Ghana—to try to find solid ground, to be touched by something other than my own life, to remember what was still beautiful in the world. For eleven months, I traveled with my boyfriend, Will, onto South Africa, and then to Europe. When we landed back in the States, I applied for MFA programs, and the following year, I started as a nonfiction student at Chatham University, where I began the manuscript for She Made You That Way—the story of my mom’s life and death and those eleven months Will and I traveled.

My mom had died two-and-a-half years after a re-diagnosis of breast cancer. It was a slow process, and painful and beautiful and bewildering and harrowing and surreal and a mess, in the way slow deaths can be. I’d just graduated college, and my mom was becoming my best friend, so her death completely devoured me, that age-old description of grief as a wave, a tidal force so powerful and consuming all you can do is hold your breath and hope you live long enough to again, one day, find air.

When I started writing the manuscript, my instinct was to write in present tense. I love reading and writing present tense narratives. There’s an urgency I find compelling and alert in the present, a language not tamped down by distance and time. But as part of my courses at Chatham, I was starting to study memoir in earnest and noticed most memoirs are written in past tense. For good reason. Much of the joy and beauty of memoir is its ability to shed light, offer insight, and infuse wisdom based on the unique human ability to make meaning out of trauma and chaos and heartbreak. By creating vantage points at various places in time from which to perch and convey these insights, a writer can create complexity and differing perspectives for the reader. Present tense, so scene-based and immediate, can make it harder, though, of course, not impossible, to do this.

But that kind of reflection and wisdom offering memoir can provide wasn’t my goal. I knew I had no wisdom to give. I wasn’t capable of reflecting. Each time I tried to write in past tense, I grew a feeling under my skin, a physical sensation—a man following behind me at night, a bad phone call about to come in, a foreign sound on the dark porch—telling me something was wrong. I abandoned the past tense as quickly as I tried it each time.

There was that lurking sense of unease but also a crush of dishonesty. It felt instantly like I was writing fiction instead of my own life, writing about a stranger named Maggie who went through something I didn’t know. My mom’s death still completely calibrated my life, so present it defined my every move. To act as though I could look back on it as something of the past, something separate from me, was like shoplifting or cheating on a test, a violation and probably not worth it. The alarm bells of inauthenticity screamed in my ears. My skin felt like someone else’s, and it disgusted me. And it seemed a disservice to her. I was going to make a packaged artifact of her life in the form of a book? An inert, unfeeling thing in past tense, deadly finite?

So, in present tense, alive and breathing and full of moving possibilitiesfull of herI stayed.

Every so often, I would change a couple sentences in the manuscript to past tense, just to see how they read, and each time, that feeling. Then one day, a few years into writing, I tried it, and nothing happened. I converted a few more sentences, waiting to feel ill, and still no ick, no urge to jump ship. I did this for a whole paragraph, read it back to myself, and for the first time, it sounded true. I could suddenly see all the doors it would lead me to on top of its truth, the lateral movements and jumps in time. Maybe I would even find a way to reflect.

Eventually, I changed the entire manuscript to past tense, and that’s how it will stay. But I know why the present tense felt like the only true way for so long. Part of me thought I could keep her alive if I wrote about her as if she actually still were. She is sleeping, she walks to her closet, she tells me, “I love you so.” No “ate” or “snored” or “laughed.” No. Those verbs were for dead people. I could keep her with me if she was active in the present. I could make it so she wasn’t fully gone. She could still breathe beside me. I could still stand with her in a room.

I won’t go so far as to say I offer any kind of wisdom in my manuscript, past tense as it now may be. But I do feel like I’ve finally done justice to her, to my family, to Will, to myself because I’m able to explore us all through the many dimensions we contain, to show development, change, and regression across time and space. While past tense isn’t the best way to tell every story, not by a long shot, it seems to be working now for this one.

I’ve been able to track my grief through how I’ve been able to write about it, and it’s been a humbling and gratifying experience, one that’s held my hand and kept me on some kind of path through the dark woods. Even in the past tense, I get to sit down with my mom each day at my computer, to hear her words, and see her smile. “I love you,” she said. She says. She pulls me to her. “You’ll always be my baby.”
_____

Maggie Pahos is a writer and teacher living in Portland, Oregon. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Chatham University, and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Hippocampus Magazine, Bark, the Rumpus, Flyway, Nowhere, Hobart, and elsewhere. In the summers, she leads trips for National Geographic Student Expeditions. You can find more of her writing at www.maggiepahos.com.

So the Was Turns to Is

September 25, 2014 § 6 Comments

Lynette D’Amico on the origin of her essay Faithful, found in the newest issue of Brevity:

So the was turns to is, in whatever one writes.—Marianne Boruch

Lynette D'Amico

Lynette D’Amico

When a dear friend’s mother was in hospice at home, dying of ovarian cancer, she asked me to come. We are both daughters of Italian mothers. Of course I came. This was in late summer. We mark our friendship by cigarettes: the years of sneaking around with cigarettes, the years we smoked together, the years since we quit smoking. Her parents’ house was out in the dense oak and hickory woods of Jefferson County, Missouri, out of cell phone range. We took the night shift, staying up all night with her mother as she diminished further and farther. The progression toward death is already disorienting, add to that: disconnection from the outside world, our exhaustion, the Italian propensity to express grief in anger and blame: sad-mad, mad-sad—we were out of our minds. We ate handfuls of black licorice during the long nights, both of us wanting a cigarette, the bitter-sweet bite of licorice a solace on the tongue.

My own Italian mother would be dead by spring. I talked to my mother every day. If I missed her call, she would leave me long, chatty messages, often multiple messages. After her death I realized I still had all these saved messages from her, more immediate than photographs, as effective at transporting me into her presence as the nearly empty bottle of  Jean Naté cologne I kept on my bedside table.

I’m primarily a fiction writer, but I get a little bored by plot, narrative: this happened and then this happened. I’m a sucker for language, image, the rhythm of a phrase. At first draft, meaning, if any, is secondary, not the point. The point is bald, gasping beauty. Like Annie Dillard says, “I wanted beauty bare of import; I liked language in strips like pennants.” With “Faithful,” I started with the phone: the disconnected phone during the dying of my friend’s mother, no cell phone service, the saved phone messages from my mother.

Because I’m a writer, how I try to make sense of the world is through words. Of course, words are completely inadequate to make sense of grief, to make sense of the terrible loss of our Italian mothers. But I had to try anyway. In earlier drafts I went through the three stages of memoir, what poet and memoirist Rigoberto Gonzalez refers to as “the sentimentality of nostalgia, … the low-emotion in anecdote, and … the frivolousness of crowd-pleasing storytelling.”

I remembered a line from Maira Kalman’s wonderful book that illustrates a year in her life, The Principles of Uncertainty, about the death of her own mother: “She is no longer alive, and it is impossible to bear.” What more needed to be said? That line became a version of the refrain in “Faithful”:

“The impossibility that she is dead.”

“How impossible it is that she is dead.”

“It is impossible that she is dead.”

“The impossibility of her dead.”

I transcribed my mother’s phone messages. She died in April, ten days after Easter. There were still Easter cuccidate she had made in the freezer.

Like the slipperiness of grief itself—expanding, contracting, laying low, and then wham! You think you can go to the grocery store and walk by the escarole, the green and purple grapes, and not think of your mother’s table? I couldn’t come to a resting place with this piece, not to an end point, but a pause point: stop here for a little while, look around, go for a walk, wash a dish. Sentences, paragraphs, went on and on. There would be no end to it. No relief. Punctuation marks stabbed me. The white space on the page was a gaping hole I fell into again and again. Every time I came to the page my friend’s mother, my mother was dying over and over again.

In James Longenbach’s brilliant essay, “All Changed,” about the effect of tense shifts in poetry and prose, from his book The Virtues of Poetry, he says in regard to the poem “Easter, 1916” by William Butler Yeats:

…the simple present tense produces a timeless presence. …the poem is looking at events that occurred in the past, but something is happening right now, in the time it takes to speak the words of the poem.

In my own clumsy way, I wanted to try narrating a past event from present tense, or the intrusion of the present tense into a past tense narrative, so the phone is still ringing in the last line. It is happening right now. Do you hear it?

___

Lynette D’Amico earned her MFA in fiction at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She has published work previously in Brevity and The Gettysburg Review. She is the content editor for howlround.com.

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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