When I first started writing short stories, my default POV and tense was third person past. In my mind, it was how all the writers I read framed their work. I was a young writer and knew as much as I read in books and learned in Language Arts (the elementary school version of English), English (the high school version of English), and Literature/Composition (the undergraduate version of English). Near the end of high school and well into college, I began experimenting with the POV, moving from 3rd into 1st. Even during the beginning of my MFA, writing in the past tense seemed to be the right thing to do. Then I started to get a little wild stylistically, which involved changing the tense from past to present. For the last four years, I’ve written in the present tense (first person) almost exclusively. It was my thing (all writers seem to have a thing).
But, friends, it seems that my thing has started to fail. You see, I’ve been having trouble with my latest manuscript. At first, I wasn’t entirely certain what the work would be about, then I figured it out, then I decided on something else altogether (which seemed in better keeping of the narrative). I considered changing the POV from first to third but when I did a test paragraph, it didn’t seem right. My last ditch effort? Change the tense. Yesterday, I started the painstaking task of going through a previous manuscript I had been frowning over and changing the tense to past. The end result? A sense of relief.
At the very start of my MFA, I was in England for 10 days surrounded by writers. During an informal reading that was held in the manor one night (yes, our school’s program was held at a very real, very old English manor which I was convinced had to be haunted although I never experienced anything supernatural), one of my closest friends read part of her memoir. We were all impressed. Then she shared that her mentor had told her to change the tenses in work. She had written it in the present and he thought it would be better served in the past. His position? He believed that when in the moment, a person wouldn’t experience something tragic and be able to describe it with such metaphor and grace. Which isn’t a wrong position. It’s true. True description is done in hindsight, as a way of processing what just happened. My friend ended up torn over what to do. Something as simple as tense can seem so personal.
I had a philosophical thought last night. We are never truly in the present. We are, but we aren’t. As I’m writing this, I’m in the present. But it isn’t one present. It’s a series of presents. With each sentence, each word, the past is falling on the page. I wrote the last sentence in the past. For the most part, when we’re thinking, we’re thinking in hindsight. When we’re telling a story, we’re reliving the past, trying to recreate something that has passed us.
That’s what I thought when I was working on my manuscript yesterday. Writing in the present almost seemed to be a sort of lie. There was so much I couldn’t do with my characters and the narrative because if the work was meant to be transcribed as it happened, no one would be able to add a footnote. There would be no time. Going back would mean entering the past.
I did an experiment to prove the position to myself. I started writing something. It was something new, something I hadn’t focused on. It was very strange. It came to me and I started scribbling. When the words fell onto the page, they were in the past. But because I wasn’t certain about writing in the past, I changed the tenses to the present. And then something interesting happened. When I read the text over, the magic that had been there had diminished. It no longer seemed as glittery, as frightening. So I changed it back. The magic returned. The shimmering. The atmosphere. Whatever it is that you want to call it, it was there because of the tense change. So now I’m thinking that as far as my writing goes (and as I said before, tense, just like every other aspect of literary style, is incredibly personal) maybe my work would be better suited in the past.
In a way, writing in the past tense is like returning to the fairy tales I’ve always loved. The stories wouldn’t have been the same if they hadn’t started “Once upon a time…” There was something wondrous in that phrase. It was something that happened a long time ago but it was being told to me regardless. It was a like a secret, something being shared that no one else really knew. If I wasn’t told the story, maybe no one would ever hear it again and it would fade from collective consciousness and be gone forever. That’s what I want to capture with the tense change, however simple an idea that might be.
Of course, if a writer really does prefer present and finds that past is too limited or archaic or whatever, then stick with it. If neither works, try out the future tense. Or, switch it up between works. Sometimes, a specific style might not work well for a certain kind of story. You have to figure out how you’ll write the story best. At least for me, this is a change to my writing that I think will turn out for the best.