Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Bill Sherwonit: Getting Tense While Moving from the Present to the Past




The early stages of turning my “Animal Stories” idea into a book went remarkably smoothly. Two decades of writing wildlife essays had given me plenty of material to choose from. Though there are some iconic Alaskan animals I haven’t yet encountered and/or examined in story, I had more than enough diversity in the species, locales, and nature of my encounters to fill a book (and then some). There were certainly issues to address, for instance repetition of content in certain stories and the need to provide additional context and/or update information in some pieces. But overall, the essays seemed to work well when woven into a larger work.

From everything I could tell, the staff at Graphic Arts Books/Alaska Northwest Books approved my choice of essays, my organization of them into four sections (eventually to become Meeting the Neighbors, Along City and Highway Fringes, Backcountry Encounters, and a sort of grab-bag section titled Oddities, Surprises, and Dilemmas), and my inclusion of an author’s note to introduce the stories. In short, the editorial staff seemed to trust my instincts, choices, approach, and story-telling style and ability. There was minimal disagreement or even discussion of how the manuscript was evolving.

Upon reaching the copy-editing phase, I expected this also to go smoothly. I knew there would be questions and suggestions to address, but the content and organization seemed pretty well set by this point; the manuscript seemed to be in good shape.

Michelle, my copy editor, began her notes to me in the same way I’d critique an essay in one of my nature writing classes: she told me what worked well for her, what she admired about the collection, what she considered its strengths. Then, in her fourth paragraph, she added, “My primary concerns are related to tense and time . . .”

Uh-oh.

I have always loved using present tense when writing essays. Certainly there have been exceptions, but nearly all my essays—especially those I’ve written about wildlife—are composed in present tense, which I believe gives them more immediacy: the reader is present with me as I’m having an experience and reflecting upon it. I also think that writing the main narrative line in present tense makes it easier to move (or jump) around between earlier, past experiences. Bottom line: present tense works for me as essayist; rightly or wrongly, I believe I’m more effective using it.

While writing in the present tense can be effective for a single essay, Michelle pointed out that it becomes more challenging in a book-length narrative—or a book-length collection of essays that were written across two decades, with changing personal circumstances (including the places I’ve lived while residing here in Anchorage and the people with whom I’ve had primary relationships) and perspectives, understandings.

Michelle explained, “Because of your unique position and ability to tell stories of human interaction with our natural world, some of the lessons that readers learn from you are in the ‘looking back’ on your experiences.

“I believe readers will appreciate this book as a memoir. We know these things aren’t happening now, but rather that you are recalling memories. Your perspective on these memories adds depth to the theme of the book. You couldn’t always know, in the moment, the significance that a particular event would later take in your life.

“Writing in the present tense is tricky. The reason to do it is to bring readers right into the action—they are actively participating as the scene unfolds. Not many authors use this technique because it is difficult to sustain in a logical way through the length of a book manuscript. Sections in present tense can feel jarring and shifts from past to present and back to past within the story itself can become a distraction.

“There is a notion of historical present which can be employed to give a sense of immediacy to a passage that actually took place in the past. Again this can be tricky and needs to be used carefully and intentionally. . . .

“That being said, I would suggest your memories of your encounters with nature be written in past tense throughout the manuscript.

“I’m not suggesting that the whole book be written exclusively in past tense. There are places where you ruminate on the future (e.g. whether you will return to a certain location) and that works fine. Or places where you’re talking about the kind of city Anchorage is today and so present tense makes sense. Or places where you are making a current observation about a past event, expressing what you’ve learned from it . . . It’s really in the memories where we know the action is not occurring now, that past tense should be used.”

To her credit, Michelle then gave some detailed examples to back up her points and suggestions.

Still, my initial reaction was to oppose her well-laid-out argument and advice. Present tense had always worked for me and I believed it worked for me here, too. Besides that, I realized that changing all my essays from present to past tense would be an enormous amount of work. It’s not as simple as merely changing verb tenses. Of course Michelle knew that. She empathized with my dilemma and reminded me that the final decision was mine.

At my request we talked. Though I said I needed to think about it some more, by the end of our conversation I knew I’d make the change. Her arguments—and especially some of the examples she’d given me—made sense. Given the substantial time frame that I covered, my own changing circumstances, and other changes that have occurred since I first wrote several of the essays, the use of present tense would likely create unnecessary confusion for the reader and perhaps some misinterpretations.

Reluctantly at first, but with increased determination—and, dare I say it, enthusiasm—I made the changes. After all, I wanted this to be the best book it could be. And as a whole, I could see the collection of essays becoming clearer and stronger, more cohesive and coherent, when written in the past tense (with sections in present tense where appropriate, as Michelle had commented in her note).

As I’d guessed, it wasn’t an easy change to make. Some of the essays required considerable revision and reframing. But in the end, I liked what I read. Animal Stories is a better book because of it.


A transplanted New Englander, nature writer Bill Sherwonit has made Anchorage his home since 1982. He’s contributed essays, articles, and commentaries to a wide variety of publications and is the author of more than a dozen books. His newest, Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife, will be published this fall by Alaska Northwest Books. His website is www.billsherwonit.alaskawriters.com.


3 comments:

Lynn Lovegreen said...

Interesting, thanks for letting us into your editing process.

Sandra Kleven said...

I have spent some time thinking about this and did some research about five years ago, because I have a tendency to launch into present tense when the action starts in a piece. I was not aware of it until an editor pointed it out. The tendency is to frame the story, "A long time ago..." and then, launch, "It was a Saturday morning, the sun hits my face. I am wondering what is ahead. Suddenly, the houses starts to shake." When the editor told me this was confusing, I thought she was something of a purist -- just rule bound. I did research to see if there was support for this "technique" in story telling. I wondered, for instance, if my natural inclination might be related to being so recently from the Nordic lands -- maybe, Scandinavian's do this. Among other things, I read that Knut Hamsun's books suffered in translation from the Norwegian, because Robert Bly changed his present tense "mistakes" into past tense. It's been awhile since I looked into this but it may be fruitful to look further, especially exploring if cultures of story telling, tend toward the use of present tense, just because of the heightened drama. It seems that confusion could be minimized with the right frame. Corny example: "Let's go back to that day so long ago when everything changed... I wake up earlier than the birds... " etc. Present tense brings the story into the here and now... but it is still within the story. Can't we deal with that? I get how it may work differently in a collection of essays where one might wish the single present to be the here and now of compiling it... but, still, it's just a device, not a literal statement that we have re-entered the presence of this clicking of keys.

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

I'm glad to read about this present/past tense issue. Each time I've thought I had a good reason to write a long work in present tense (and in one novel I tied myself in knots coming up with a philosophical and narrative justification for it), I later realized that past tense was more effective. Some things that work in short pieces can be exhausting and limiting in longer works, and like your editor said, the ability to reflect even more fully, from a later vantage point, is a key use of past tense in memoir. (It's like Renaissance perspective in visual art-- yes, one can argue that the "flat" look in ancient portraiture or modern cartooning and the present tense oral-storytelling style has its own appeal, but perspective has a tremendous amount of power, and we should be able to use more than one tense effectively.) Many writers seem to overly estimate the value of "urgency" in present tense.

Regardless of my opinions on tense, I mainly appreciate your willingness to share all the details of your process here. Revision is a lot of work -- sometimes, the most important work we do. Congrats on the new book, Bill!