Time Present, Part 2

Last week I delved into the gnarly problem of verbs in students’ critical papers. This week, cracking my knuckles and stepping onto my own turf, I’m tackling fiction.

At the start of each semester of teaching fiction writing, I’m astonished by the cacophony of verb tense. Apparently there are languages that do not indicate past, present, and future the way English does. But we have these tenses and others, all of which most native speakers use competently in conversation. It’s only when students start crafting stories that they time-travel in loop-de-loops: “Karen was sitting on the floor while her mom makes dinner. She wants to know if she was supposed to help her clean up later.” And so on. We’re in search not just of lost time but of time itself.

The core of the problem, I think, is two-fold. First, there’s the storyteller’s habitual use of what we call the historical present. My mother-in-law used to scream bloody murder whenever any of her seven children used it. One might begin, “So yesterday we were standing in line for Avatar. Felt like we’d been there forever. And then Howie comes up to me and says, ‘Can you let us in here?’ Well, I didn’t want to—the people behind us would’ve been hopping mad—but Charlie steps aside and lets them into the line. And then this fight breaks out.”

Broke out!” she’d yell. “It happened yesterday! In the past.”

Thus did seven potential novelists miss their calling. Because this slippage into the present tense is the storyteller’s way of making the past vivid and present to the reader. Michael Cunningham’s “White Angel” is a terrific example of historical present. Note how he both enters into present tense and eventually cuts back out of it into past tense, only to re-introduce present tense as actual present time at the end of the story. But to pull this off, Cunningham has to know exactly how each tense acts upon the reader, where it places us in relation to the events of the story and to the person narrating.

The second part of the problem has to do with the creation of a fictional world. Let’s leave aside for a moment those fictions that are set in a hypothetical present, e.g., “I’m walking down the grocery aisle debating whether to indulge in Frosty Flakes or stick with Shredded Wheat when Sharon comes barreling into me with her cart.” (No, you’re not. If you were walking down the grocery aisle and getting barreled into, you wouldn’t be telling or writing this story, would you? But we get it. The continuous present tense is a fictional device.) For the majority of stories, which are set in past tense, students find themselves flummoxed not only by the confusion I’ve sampled above, but also by the continuing  existence of a real world. I often receive something along these lines:

Kate and Jen were walking along the shore of Lake Huron discussing their boyfriends. Huron used to be polluted with PCB’s, but now it’s been cleaned up, and people swim in it regularly. But Kate was getting over a cold.

Imagine how confused the student (whose name is probably Kate, or perhaps Kathy) is when I advise her to change the second sentence to past tense. Here she’s been writing essays about Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, who appear in past tense in Pride and Prejudice, and she’s had to use present tense—and even to use present tense about Jane Austen’s fictional technique, when Austen’s been dead for 200 years. And now I want her to use past tense about something that happens to be true right now?

Yes, I tell her. That second line belongs to the fictive world of the story; whether I can drive to Lake Huron myself and take a dip in it tomorrow is irrelevant.

What if she confesses that the story is actually memoir? That its world is real? Well, she’d have some leeway there (though in my class she’s supposed to be writing fiction). But in the context of her narrative she’d still be confusing the reader, who cannot discern whether Huron became swimmable before or after Kate’s walk with Jen. Sticking with past tense does no harm; “now it had been cleaned up and people swam in it regularly” does not imply that something awful has happened since. Or, if the walk along the shore is somehow in the midst of the clean-up years, Kate does better to lift the second sentence and use it in another paragraph, perhaps one talking about the larger context of her childhood:

Jen and I were walking along the shore of Lake Huron discussing our boyfriends. I was getting over a cold, and didn’t want to swim. Good thing, since I couldn’t have set foot in that lake.

Huron used to be polluted with PCB’s. Now it’s been cleaned up, and people swim in it regularly. Looking back, though, I’m surprised at how complacent Jen and I were about being banned from that lovely body of water.

Finally, of course, Kate can use the fictional device of the present:

Kate and Jen are walking along the shore of Lake Huron discussing their boyfriends. Huron used to be polluted with PCB’s, but now it’s been cleaned up, and people swim in it regularly. But Kate’s getting over a cold.

A whole new set of difficulties will rear its head, particularly when Kate begins to drown. But if the use of verb tense is an art (and I think it is), we all have to practice and experiment with it, until the art seems to disappear and we’re on that kitchen floor, in that movie line, in that grocery aisle, and on that lovely summer shore.

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