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?

This is a follow-up to Monday's post, "The Story I Never Wanted to Write." In that piece, I talked about facing up to the discomfort that comes with writing, particularly writing about those things we don't want to face. I set out to finally write about my experiences during 9/11. As I stared at the emptiness before me, I confronted the first of many issues a writer must face: How to tell the story.

When we talk about personal experiences and explore the world of non-fiction, it's not as easy as just telling a story. Of course, I can just go through the events - I did this, I went there, I thought about that, and so forth. However, when we tell stories, there is a difference between just telling what happened and engaging the reader in the moment. Making this choice can make something an interesting story or a personal experience.

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.


  1. I don't think there is anything problematic about telling a past event as 'present' tense in non-fiction, other than it implies an accurate recollection of events that one could argue cannot exist given the passage of that much time. Even in, or perhaps especially when a traumatic event. Unless maybe you're working from a journal entry from the day?
    The writing should be intensely vivid in present tense and the memory of such a tragic day acutely imprinted on your recollection.

    Perhaps a bit off point, but Tara Westover in Educated does an interesting disclaimer to readers - for lack of a better word - in areas where she's unsure of her memory and her piece is all the more lovely for these notes. It's like you understand her search for the truth among family members' recollection of certain tragedies - to tell her story of past events accurately - has implications in how she in how she views her life. Her book opens with "My strongest memory is not a memory." Is that still present tense?

    I think the value of your piece lies in your strength finding the courage to write about it and your guilt, but the shift of tenses at the end was slightly distracting IMHO. You start by talking about 'today' (meaning 9/11/01); speculating about the past 'entire month' and Labor Day (9/3/01); shift to present tense for the body of the piece; then the last paragraph jumped to past tense for the current insight.

    Additionally, I had the knowledge prior to reading the piece that it was about September 11th so I think that was unfair to the way I went into absorbing what I was reading - although I'm not sure how.

    There are a couple of wonderful pieces I've read that might be of interest.

    Against Narrativity by Galen Strawson and Writing the Self by Peter Heehs. Both assigned in my Introduction to Literary Study and Critical Methods.

    1. Thank you for the commentary. My main goal was to get the story out of me. Needless to say, it needs polish, but after sitting inside me, untold, for so long, I need extra eyes so I can see where it needs to be fixed.

  2. Even though "The Darkness that Lingers" is fiction, I noticed the power of writing in the "I" (first person) gave the piece more strength. In fact, I began writing it in third person, and I just wasn't feeling it (the story); however, I was feeling frustrated while writing the story. As soon as I changed to first person, I channeled the main character and the story flowed right out of me through my fingers and onto my screen.

    1. That is what makes the first-person so powerful - intimacy. The writer is reliving the experience rather than telling, and the reader is fully engaged.