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Memoir Monday

I’m going to start blogging about the process of memoir writing, a process I have become all too familiar with these past – eh hem – “couple” of years. This week, I’ll talk about tense.

It’s a difficult decision whether to write your memoir in past or present tense. I wrote mine in past and then rewrote the entire thing in present tense. Some writing professors hate memoirs written in present tense and discourage their students from writing them. The big problem with present tense is that it doesn’t allow you to provide the older narrator’s perspective on events that happened in the past. If the memoir is about events that happened recently, that’s not a problem. But if it’s about events that happened twenty years ago, as in my case, it can be a huge problem. In my memoir, Paris On Less Than $10,000 A Day, my 18-year-old narrator has very different thoughts and opinions from my 40-year-old writer self. She hated vegetables, didn’t know who Jim Jarmusch was, and loathed the thought of being stuck home watching TV on Friday nights. I, the writer, love vegetables, love Jim Jarmusch, and am stuck home watching TV (or blogging) on Friday nights and don’t mind it at all.

If you do decide to write your memoir in present tense, and you do have that disconnect between the writer and narrator that I do, there are a few ways you can give insight into the younger narrator’s actions while still taking advantage of the immediacy that comes with present tense. One is to insert sentences like, “I later realized …” or “I didn’t know this then, but …” (which didn’t work for me). Another is to add italicized commentary from the older narrator’s POV within the chapter, at the end of each chapter, or every few chapters. Julia Scheeres does this in Jesus Land. This didn’t work for me either. Another is to insert reflection on the younger narrator’s part throughout the book. “I know this was really superficial of me, but …” or “I was vain enough to think …” This tactic was subtle enough for me that I could use it without jarring the reader out of the story. But it doesn’t allow for anywhere near the amount of reflection afforded by some of the other methods. So then you have to decide—is the goal of your story to provide insight and reflection based on what you learned by looking back on the events that happened to you, or is to to entertain the reader with details about the events themselves? My memoir fell more into the latter category, so I was okay not providing as much insight as I could have in the former. I also try to let the reader form his/her own opinion based on the events in the story. Rather than tell the reader fashion modeling is bad, I show events that happened and let the reader form his own opinion.

If you write your memoir in the past tense, you’ll have ample opportunity for providing the reflection needed to give your story depth. And there are various ways to tell the story in past tense, ranging from essay-style exposition to a novel-style story arc with scenes, or a combination of the two. ‘ll talk more about that in a future post.

Meanwhile, what do you think of memoirs written in past vs. present tense? Have you written either? Which do you prefer to read? Why?

22 comments to Memoir Monday

  • Hmm, I'm not sure I've read any memoirs written in the present tense. But then again, I don't read a ton of nonfiction… I know a couple that I read (and loved) in college were split. LUCKY was more "in the moment" than reflective, NAME ALL THE ANIMALS was the opposite. (I think. I read both of these years ago…)

    Another interesting thought is the whole past-tense-verbs-but-present-tense-perspective thing. I mean, novels are written in past tense but don't (often) give that reflective perspective. I wonder, can you do that with memoir?

    Come to think of it, what tense does Augusten Burroughs write in? I felt in the moment with him. Whereas David Sedaris, I felt there was more of a combination. (Note: Unrelated to their POV choices, I liked Sedaris far more than Burroughs.)

  • As an editor working with people writing memoirs I always advise them to use past tense. As you point out it allows the author to deal with events in a reflective manner. This is really at the heart of what the genre is about – reflecting on the lessons and insights of one's experiences and seeing what they have to teach. Writing in the present tense makes this difficult or impossible. Inserting the "I later realized…" kind of devices to try to bring reflection in through the back door is artificial if it is used throughout and really distances the reader from the author's story.

  • Kristan, using past tense but not giving reflection seems to defeat the purpose of memoir, I think. I want to say Augusten Burroughs writes in present tense, but I can't remember offhand. And I think I've loaned all his books away. I'm curious now.

    And Biff, I totally understand your point, which is why most people advise against writing memoirs in present tense – but for mine, it worked better. An editor even suggested I CHANGE it to present tense when it was in past tense. I don't use "Later I realized …" in mine because I find it, like you said, an artificial device. Would love to hear more of people's thoughts on this!

  • This is a tricky one…I would like to know why present tense was suggested, which is interesting. It sounds like your memoir could be slightly less authentic, seeing as you aren't the 18-year old anymore. Not exactly. However, that's the thing with memory and memoir–how much is actually constructed/changed in your remembrance of things. I am eternally curious about this aspect of autobiography. Just simply looking at a photograph, a snapshot of a certain time, can bring you back to a memory, but you're looking at the photograph from a time in the future where you've changed. I know when I look at my diary of when I was 16 (which is SO embarassing), I feel as if I hardly know the person that I was. It would be very difficult to recall the events of my life with accuracy, let alone tell the events in present tense. But, it would be fun to try!

  • You know, Sarah, I can't even remember why the editor suggested I change my book to present tense, but I'd been toying with the idea and agreed to give it a try. I think my attempts at adding that older narrator's perspective were stilted to begin with, so they weren't adding much to the narrative. And the story felt more immediate in present tense. You're right, though, that it's VERY difficult to capture what I was thinking/doing twenty years ago. And yet in past tense, I'd still have to make that happen.

    Kristan – I took a look and Augusten Burroughs's memoirs are written in present tense. So that's proof that it can work. And Jesus Land, too, was a NY Times best seller, written in present tense.

  • I think certain memoirs work really well in present tense because it provides an immediacy/tension that the material calls for. I'm thinking of Kathryn Harrison's THE KISS (incestuous relationship with father), for example. The narrative unfolds in a really gripping/disturbing manner that past tense would have distanced the reader from. That said, other memoirs with similarly disturbing material work just as well in past tense. Gregory Orr's beautiful memoir THE BLESSING (return to his childhood/accidental shooting of his brother) is in past tense, I think.

    I guess I came away from my nonfiction workshops with the idea that one should avoid present tense unless there was a reason to need that kind of immediacy.

  • I think that's great advice, Elizabeth – to avoid present tense unless really necessary. And both of those memoirs sound gripping, especially The Blessing. How horrific to accidentally shoot your brother!

  • One memoir that comes to mind when thinking of present tense is Eleanor Vincent's SWIMMING WITH MAYA. The present tense worked very well. I remember in our craft of nonficion class she talked about her last-minute decision–she switched to present tense very close to publication and then let her editor know.

    This is great to ponder now because I will be editing one of my short stories (memoir) and have to make the decision about tense. Thanks Meghan.

  • One memoir that comes to mind when thinking of present tense is Eleanor Vincent's SWIMMING WITH MAYA. The present tense worked very well. I remember in our craft of nonficion class she talked about her last-minute decision–she switched to present tense very close to publication and then let her editor know.

    This is great to ponder now because I will be editing one of my short stories (memoir) and have to make the decision about tense. Thanks Meghan.

  • Erika – I forgot Swimming With Maya was in present tense. I'll have to take a look at it again. I wonder what made Eleanor decide to switch.

  • […] Meghan, over at Writerland, has a nice discussion going on present vs. past tense in memoir. […]

  • Thanks for posting about this — I'm struggling with tense in my memoir and find that I have to write in scenes using present tense then go back and convert parts to past, depending on how the chunks get integrated together. Messy and frustrating, but an essential part of how we tell the story. As for what I prefer to read, can't say I have any issue with either tense as long as the author integrates/makes use of it (or them) in an unobtrusive manner. I guess tense should make the writing more transparent rather than obscuring it.

  • Contemp – Is your memoir in both past and present tense? Are you writing some parts in present and then converting them because it's easier that way? I'm curious to hear more about your process!

  • It is indeed in both past and present tense, Meghan. I started by just writing scenes in present tense to capture moments that felt important to telling the story, many of them from childhood (so from the child's immediate perspective). I hadn't yet figured out my voice as an adult narrator within the work. That came several months later — now that I've sort of pinned down what I want that to be, I'm trying to integrate those initially written scenes-in-childhood into the adult narrator's reflection. So the adult narrator speaks in the present but narrates the childhood scenes using the past tense (as flashbacks). As I integrate the scenes, I change the tense as needed.

    Hope that wasn't too confusing …

  • Not at all! I'm curious to know what other memoirs are written that way. I'll have to look around.

  • Milo,You are right CBS College is not on the basic expanded cable package. Its a regular TV channel, though, not an online deal. Im not in Albuquerque for the game tonight, so I also will be finding a sports bar with a satellite dish. Have fun.

  • Laurie

    I am writing a eulogy now and it will definitely be in the present tense. Writing a eulogy in the present tense is a way of expressing the loved one will always be with me in my heart.

  • Mary Karr wrote Lit in present tense, and of course, it worked well enough to make her book a NY Times Bestseller. I wrote my childhood memoir in present tense, the voice changing from childhood through adult. It was an interesting process to say the least. Spent 8 years on it. Just finished a memoir from my adult life, in past tense, and I feel it's too removed. Am now experimenting with rewriting in present tense, which makes it so much more emotional and gripping.

  • Staggering Work of Heartbreaking Genius is in both the present and past tense.

  • Paxton

    I know this was written a few years ago but as I am writing a memoir for a college English class, this is very helpful. I love reading memoirs, Ive read tons of them, but when I was told I had to write one I suddenly got stuck. People on here are saying they haven't really read any in present tense, but I looked up this article because I in fact have read quite a few written in present tense. They were written as a story as it was happening with full dialogue and all. However, I have thought about it and think I will go ahead and go with past tense for mine.

  • Melissa Cronin

    I'm a bit late to the conversation, too, Paxton. But, Meghan, thanks for sharing your thoughts on past versus present tense in memoir. I tried writing one of my drafts in present tense, but I struggled with reflection, which is a significant part of my story. There are parts of my memoir where I share nightmares – those are in present tense. And when I imagine on the page, I also write in present tense. A fabulous memoir that is written in present tense is Blackbird by Jennifer Lauck.

  • Maureen O'Brien

    I am in the process of writing my dog's memoir (dogoir). The book is a compilation of little stories which start when my husband and I adopted Bogey and end with him looking down from heaven. Bogey is the narrator of the story and I am writing it in first person, present tense. The last three stories he tells from heaven are written in past tense.

    There are parts of a few stories which describe his reflections/flashbacks and I do switch from present to past. don't know where I read this but my understanding was that this would work but that I should italicize those passages. Does this make sense to anyone on this thread? I would appreciate your feedback. Thanks, Maureen