All writers have a process that allows them to create. However, the art of "Writing" is often mistaken for that "Process." Hopefully this blog explains the difference, and inspires people to develop their crafts, become writers, or just keep on writing.
Friday, September 13, 2019
When Do We Tell the Story?
Indeed, we all know that 9/11 was eighteen years ago, so the natural draw is to write in the past tense. After all, it's a story about what happened. This has its advantages - it allows the writer to incorporate present-tense observations on events that happened long ago, and it can compare experience to reaction. Writing a story in the past tense can present a thoughtful observation of any event, and allows the writer to insert questions such as whether they now know that an action was a mistake, how they have grown since, and so forth.
But is this always the right way to tell a story?
As I sat there, looking at a very blank screen, I thought about what I really wanted to communicate. I didn't just want to tell people about my experience. That didn't feel right. No, I wanted people to understand my experience. I wanted them to experience things with me. I wanted the reader to be with me on that day, living through those events. To me, the story had to be told in the present tense.
Telling a story in the present tense is an effective way to grab the reader, but it's tricky. It has to fully engage the reader in the moment, recreating that day, that hour, that point of time. Even if the reader knows the broad strokes of what will occur, the present tense makes them experience it through a character entirely unaware of what will happen.
This is tricky because the writer has to avoid offering reflective asides or thoughts that occurred over time. The world of the present tense has to remain present, and one step outside of that moment dispels the illusion. One sentence of, "Looking back, I would've done..." turns everything back into a story rather than a moment the reader experiences through the writing. The story has to be pure and true to that moment in the past, told as it is experienced.
So, how do we choose whether to go for the past or present when telling the story? In this regard, it's personal choice. My decision comes from how I want the reader to respond. If the story is a funny anecdote or an amusing story from my very adventurous college days, do I need the audience to be gripped with every wild idea or stupid decision I made? Probably not. It's easier to show those things in the past tense, which allows me to offer comments about just how stupid I was and how dangerous those acts were. But if I want to drag them into the moment and live it with me, then I go with the present moment.
In the end, my 9/11 story was a personal walk-through of that one day's events and how I managed them. Maybe someday I'll write a story about how that one day affected the next eighteen years of my life, but for now I have faced the experience head-on, in the present tense. It was not easy, but it was worth it.