Why the Present Tense

It all goes back to circa 2001-2003. I was a ramp rat working for USAirways in Tallahassee and sitting around the break room waiting to clock out. A friend and fellow ramp rat who also happened to be a part-time sports reporter for the local paper was telling my other fellow ramp rats about a softball game from that past weekend. I wasn't interested, but all I had to read at the time was a copy of the New Yorker pulled from a plane's seat back pocket and it was proving tedious.

To say that the New Yorker's fiction is dull is an understatement worthy of the New Yorker. Twice in my life I have been a subscriber and twice in my life I've let it run out due to just that fact. The New Yorker's fiction is stuffy and stifling and far more boring than it is not, and what I was suffering through at that moment was no exception. So my mind drifted away from it and across the room to where Jim Henry was talking about the game. I don't care for softball either, but I couldn't help but notice how Jim was tense-shifting as he told his story. Anything boring yet necessary he would talk of in the past tense, almost as if writing one of his news articles. Anything active and interesting he switched to the present tense for, which everyone perked up and paid attention to. On top of it all, I don't think Jim was cognizant of what he was doing. He wasn't writing for the paper. He was just entertaining his friends.

After the story was over, I returned to the New Yorker. The story was written in the past tense and solidly in the past tense. Why be otherwise? One of the first things they teach in college (at least back when I went through) is that you don't shift tenses inside a work of writing, and all respectable writing is written in the past tense. Why? Because if writing non-fiction then we are expected to be factual and if writing fiction we are expected to be honest, but if you are writing in the present tense then you are obviously lying about something. It doesn't matter what your intentions were, the story couldn't possibly be happening in the here and now so that's strike one in a game where it often is one strike and you're out.

But for curiosity's sake, I began to transpose the New Yorker story in my head from past to present tense. Instantly the piece came alive and seemed more vibrant on the page. A case could be made that the mental exercise of moving words from past to present tense was drawing me in, but on the whole I think that the present tense gave it a much needed kick in the pants. It created cleaner lines. It required fewer words and knocked all the ugly -ed endings off of the verbs. I knew a good thing when I saw it. Unfortunately, I also knew about the world of writing and how it truly can be a "one strike and you're out" ball game.

So I sat on it.

I kept writing stories in the past tense and would continue to do so for many years to come, just so long as it seemed there was a chance of making it through the traditional channels of the publishing. Then came 2008 - 2010 the two years I spent shopping around the manuscript for the Celtic Shelf (which was written in the past tense btw) and found those traditional channels to be hopelessly clogged. Remember the movie Watership Down? When all the bunnies were trapped in their burrows and trampling each other and suffocating as they tried to get away from the destruction of the farmer's tractors? Yeah, that is what it felt like trying to get a book published during the Great Recession. Except you weren't trying to find a way out of the burrows. You were trying to find someone who would give your manuscript the time of day. After two years of being ignored by agents and finding most publishers having closed their doors to anything not represented by an agent I said FUCK IT, self-published the thing, and pretty much gave up on the dream of being a novelist. If this is what the game entailed then I had better things to do with my life.

One small problem.

I was still writing, possibly moreso than ever before. By giving up on the dream of writing professionally I found myself writing for my own entertainment, experimenting with present tense, and finding it far preferable to writing in the past tense. For a few years I kept telling myself that in the very last step of the writing process I would switch it back to past tense to make it more commercially viable, but you know what?

Fuck it.

I like the present tense. Don't get me wrong. Shifting to the present tense is not a cure-all. You cannot simply wave the tense shifting wand over a literary turd and make it all better. There is a definite skill to it, as well as the definite peril of being overly blunt in ones writing and devolving into a blow by blow depictions of action. But in the end it sincerely does make for better writing.

So if you have ever wondered, "Why does he keep writing in the present tense? Doesn't he know it makes him sound like a log-knot bumpkin?"

Yes, I do.
Do I care? No I do not.
03/24/14
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© 2017, JDMcDonnell