How Present is Your Present Tense?

Sunday Morning Writer’s Blog

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I’ve been thinking a lot about tense lately because I’m writing a novel in the voice of an older woman talking about herself as a twelve-year-old girl. So sometimes the narrator talks like the twelve-year- old and sometimes she sounds much older. And sometimes she talks in the present tense too, but mostly she talks in the past tense, and I’ve been wondering how often a novelist can change tenses without confusing or irritating readers. Maximum freedom is what I’m after when I write but unless I’ve laid down some kind of intuitive system in how I tell my story I may end up with a babbling that makes sense only to me.

Of course, there is good literary babbling like the sort that James Joyce writes. But as the critic Hugh Kenner once said, Joyce took stream of consciousness as far as the printed page could go. And I am not writing a stream of consciousness novel. So it wasn’t Joyce but the current short story by Alice Munro in The New Yorker (March 5 2012)  that gave me some clues about how present the present tense can be. In her story, Maven, Munro changes tense six or seven times. She starts off in the past, but in a time period that’s more less like ours and she writes, “All this happened in the seventies, though in that town and other small towns like it the seventies were not as we picture them now…”

Then she goes into the situation in the seventies which is where her story is set. As a girl, the narrator stayed with her aunt and her aunt’s husband, a small town doctor, and observed her aunt’s subservient relationship to her domineering mate. Every so often, Munro reflects back on the seventies situation with her aunt and uncle, and then she plunges on again with their story in the past tense.

But here’s the amazing thing: some of the narrator’s reflections on her aunt and uncle are told in the past tense and some of her reflections are told in the present tense. And then, displaying her virtuoso abilities, Munro even enters the present tense of the 1970’s stories when she wants to be fully dramatic … “The storm door is opening now, then the door into the front hall and, without the usual pause there to remove boots and winter coat or scarf, my uncle strides into the living room …

None of these switches in tense feel unnatural. All happen with seemingly effortless ease, perhaps because Munro is one of those writers who is as interested in how the narrator sees things as she is in her story.

In Helpless by Barbara Gowdy, she solved the choice of present or past tense in her novel about the kidnapping of a small girl by writing the background of her story in the past tense and writing about the kidnapping in the present tense. A neat solution but not every narrative can be divided up so precisely into narrative present and narrative past. And where does all this leave me, as a writer writing my own stories? Taking the cue from Munro, I’m going to try shifting whenever I want from past to present to present past and see where it leads me. I’ll let you know how it goes next week.

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