Memoir is about something that happened in the past. You can write the story in the past tense. Or you can write the story in the present tense, as though it is happening now.
There is power in the present tense.
Past Versus Present Tense
Recently, a storytelling event called Brava! was held in Troy, New York. The event raised funds to provide bras for women living at the YWCA of The Greater Capital Region in New York State. Stories about the roles of bras in our lives were solicited.
The story I wrote, “I Am Not Wearing a Bra,” is about an incident I experienced in middle school.
When I first wrote the story, I wrote it in the past tense; it was something that happened to me. Writing was instead of is made the story feel removed. It was a story about remembering.
There was only one girl in my class who wore a bra. Her name was Joanne. She had a real bra, with padded cups, thin straps and a hook in the back.
Changing the tense of the story to the present tense gave drama and a sense of immediacy to the story.
There is only one girl in my class who wears a bra. Her name is Joanne. She has a real bra, with padded cups, thin straps and a hook in the back.
The Power of the Present Tense
Several stories were selected by a jury to be read at the event, including mine.
Five people read ahead of me. I had planned to read the story smiling and enunciating clearly. I thought I might get a few tears at the end of the story.
Not being able to speak at all when I stop at the front of the room was not part of the plan. My eyes and my throat were full of tears.
As Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project, says,
Writing memoir in the present tense suits grief in ways that the past tense simply cannot provide.
Writing the story in the present tense brought back the feelings I felt in middle school when I was twelve, feeling ashamed, vulnerable, and rejected. Maybe I wouldn’t have cried if I had written the story in the past tense, writing was instead of is.
But feeling is not a bad thing.
They will feel like they are with you in the story, living the moment and the memory as though it is just happening.
Have you written in the present tense before? Let me know in the comments.