Editor’s Corner 101.17

Choosing Your Tense: From Ever-once to Never-when

Walk inside me without silence,
Kill the past and change the tense.
Empty gnawing and the ache is soaring;
Take me places that make more sense.

― Melina Marchetta, The Piper’s Son

Scribe smallAlbert Einstein said that “the distinction between the past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” And while he is no doubt right on a cosmic level – I would not dare challenge Einstein on a cosmic level! – every day we writers are faced with tense decisions which are far from illusory.

Before even setting pen to paper, we must choose between telling our story in the past or present tense, mindful of just how that choice will influence what is to come. I am omitting the future tense today as it’s virtually never used; it presents problems of divine omniscience that tie you in verbal knots and stretch credulity to the breaking point. Indeed, off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single book told in future tense, either simple, perfect, or pluperfect.

Most of us tell our stories in simple past tense: he said, she said, they galloped across the green and tripped the light fantastic beneath the gibbous moon…. This is the natural tense of Once-upon-a-time, familiar to the ear and so making the reader comfortable for the journey ahead. This is the tense of Dickens and O’Conner, Brontë, Forster, and Marquez, to name but a very few. Regardless of the point of view (something I will discuss in future), working with the past tense has the advantage of implying a degree of knowledge: events have already happened, the author/narrator knows what is around the next bend and how things turn out. Some people feel this creates a distance – a sort of fictional fourth wall. To my mind – and this may be because I’m talking about my comfort zone – this layer of prescience gives the storyteller extra latitude.Past-simple-mind-map

Less familiar, yet increasing used in modern literature (thank you Runyon, Updike, and, recently, Suzanne Collins, to name a few) is simple present-tense narrative. Being in the world of “I am” rather than “I was” creates of certain immediacy and some say a cinematic, even IMAX quality that, for better or worse, demands to be noticed, though perhaps more for form than substance. There is no fourth wall, no distance of time. You are standing along side the characters, in the umbra of their moment. It can be quite exhilarating when done well. As a matter of personal taste, I find it rather unsettling for long stretches of prose, though that is likely my more traditional leanings – some have called me positively medieval; go figure! Predilections aside, I must admit, the more I read of present-tense narratives, the less time it takes me to adjust my ear and go with the authorial flow.mind_map

Of course, as with so many things literary, there is a lot of mixing and matching going on. An epistolary novel like Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” is present tense when Celie is starting her letters, but then becomes past tense when she describes what has been happening in her life. Or, as with Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius, you might have a prelude where the protagonist, in the present, speaks directly to the reader, and then jumps back into the past to tell his/her story. You can even have alternating sections/chapters, some past, some present, some first person, some second or third. (Now second person POV is fascinating and very tricky but that’s for another time.)

In short, you are the author, you decide on the when of your story, and you can puzzle together all sorts of combinations. While you are having a blast with your verbal gymnastics, remember to have your verbs in proper tense and be sure you don’t lose your reader. Ask yourself why a particular tense suits a particular story. Put reason behind all your choices, logic dictated by the needs of the story and not imposed from the outside for the sake of showing off or because all the other kids are doing it.

And remember the words of Winston Churchill: “If we open a quarrel between past and present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

Now, have fun playing through the ever-once of never-when. Perhaps a quick game of hide-and-seek in the here-and-now….

Are You Tense? - tgorose

Are You Tense? – tgorose

I will try to respond to messages as I am able. At times it may be in the form of a post or a direct email response. Guests who post, I will forward messages addressed to them. It is up to them how they decide to correspond. — Shawn MacKENZIE – MacKenzie’s Dragonsnest

Madness Speaks

network poster

Howard Beale [Speech from the film “Network”]: I don’t have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It’s a depression. Everybody’s out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel’s worth, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there’s nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there’s no end to it. We know the air is unfit to breathe and our food is unfit to eat, and we sit watching our TV’s while some local newscaster tells us that today we had fifteen homicides and sixty-three violent crimes, as if that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We know things are bad – worse than bad. They’re crazy. It’s like everything everywhere is going crazy, so we don’t go out anymore. We sit in the house, and slowly the world we are living in is getting smaller, and all we say is, ‘Please, at least leave us alone in our living rooms. Let me have my toaster and my TV and my steel-belted radials and I won’t say anything. Just leave us alone.’ Well, I’m not gonna leave you alone. I want you to get mad! I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot – I don’t want you to write to your congressman because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write. I don’t know what to do about the depression and the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the street. All I know is that first you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to say, ‘I’m a HUMAN BEING, God damn it! My life has VALUE!’ So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!’ I want you to get up right now, sit up, go to your windows, open them and stick your head out and yell – ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Things have got to change. But first, you’ve gotta get mad!… You’ve got to say, ‘I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!’ Then we’ll figure out what to do about the depression and the inflation and the oil crisis. But first get up out of your chairs, open the window, stick your head out, and yell, and say it: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”

“It Is Me You Seek”

“Rage — whether in reaction to social injustice, or to our leaders’ insanity,
or to those who threaten or harm us — is a powerful energy that, with diligent
practice, can be transformed into fierce compassion.”
― Bonnie Myotai Treace

“Letters to a Young Poet” [Part XI of XXIX]

rainer maria rilke letters to a young poet COVER

“Letters to a Young Poet”

by Rainer Maria Rilke

Part XI of XXIX

Post by Jennifer Kiley

Post Sunday 1st March 2015

RILKE Painting blond

(11th week)

the great renewal
of the world
will consist
of this,
that man
and woman,
of all confused
and desires,
shall no longer
seek each other
as opposites,
but simply
as members
of a family
and neighbors,
and will unite
as human beings,
in order
to simply,
and jointly bear
the heavy responsibility
of sexuality
that has been
to them.”

1 home large photo

One of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Homes

Dvorak, New World Symphony – 2nd Mvt Part 2,

Dublin Philharmonic, Conductor Derek Gleeson

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