I am a serial reader, so more often than not I have at least two books on my bedside table (or on my Kindle). This past week I finished reading two debut memoirs, Torre DeRoche‘s Love With A Chance of Drowning and Liz Stephens‘ The Days Are Gods.
These are vastly different, these two memoirs, one is an adventure story, the other a literary tour de force, but both had one thing in common: both authors chose to write largely in present tense.
This is not an easy trick. To keep the book moving forward and reflect back while staying in present tense requires a skilled writer. When I’ve used it my sentences tend to be stilted. “I come into the room and discover my husband dissecting a frog.” (Just an example.) Now that sentence is fine and pulls the reader right into the scene. Holy smokes… he’s doing what? I can do it for short spurts, but eventually I end up writing something like, “I come into the room and found my husband dissecting a frog.” In other words, I want to move back to past tense.
I think, or I thought until I read these two books, that present tense is difficult in memoir. The memoirist tends to write looking back at past events; we see the person who experienced those events long ago and offer up reflections based on who we are now.
I suppose it depends on what sort of memoir it is, though, because these two authors manage it well.
DeRoche (Love With A Chance of Drowning), writes a story of action, of things happening in the here and now. She struggles with a new life aboard a boat and deals with her extreme fear of water, gets to know her new lover, his family, as well as all the adventures a sailing life offers. Present tense works wonderfully well here, pulling the reader along for the trans-Pacific voyage. The reader feels as though they are in the boat (without tangling up the lines or tripping over Torre and Ivan).
Believe me, you are right there in their little 32-foot sailboat, Amazing Grace, as DeRoche writes:
“There’s no doubt about it: we’re going to die. It’s night and the wind is vile. The waves are reaching as high as our radar antenna, which must be twenty feet from sea level. We’re staggering down each angry wave, and my stomach keeps bottoming out.
Amazing Grace isn’t so amazing right now, nor is she graceful. She’s tumbling like she’s hammered on salt water. Our life is in the hands of a drunken boat.
Boom! A wave collides with fiberglass. Who knew water could sound like a bomb explosion? These bombs are hitting every minute or two—a horrifying bang, followed by a sharp lurch sideways. My body rolls in my small bunk, and I’m thankful for the canvas lip that keeps me from flying sideways.
Boom! I wait, trembling, praying for her to come back upright. The angle seems too steep. What is our tipping point, anyway? How far can we keel over before we tumble and get swallowed by the jet- black ocean?
Boom! Another wave-bomb hits—a clean uppercut to a staggering drunk. We’re definitely going down. Somehow, she finds her way back upright but then overcompensates in the other direction.
Boom! A heavy crest comes down from above, washing the topsides with fire hose pressure.”
Stephens (The Days Are Gods), on the other hand, writes about a time when she and her actor-turned-welder husband move to Mormon country, Utah, where she completes her MFA but also searches for “home.” She creates a world where the reader resides inside the head of the writer. We know what she is feeling or thinking at any given moment as she feeds her goats, buries chickens killed by a neighbor’s dog, and tries to get to know her neighbors. But we are also experiencing her reflecting on those events from her current perspective as a writer. How Stephens does this is a real skill of construct and form.
“Yes, I still feel the frisson of unexpectedness in moments, but it comes more and more slowly, less and less often-maybe when I’m standing in front of a morning class, realizing that I’ve already fed a dozen chickens in the dark of morning, when I’m just about still asleep, climbing two pipe fences at six months’ pregnant to dig layer feed out of the bag in the tack room, nudging aside my not-intelligent charges to set the metal feeder among them, weaving through drowsy horses to trudge back to the house. As much as I want to feel I belong, as I lose my sense of outsider resonance – shedding the irony I was after all trying to outrun – I feel sometimes as if my sounding is off, my bearings indistinct.”
As different as these two memoirs are, the immediacy and intimacy of present tense works so well in both cases. Both authors occasionally flip to past tense when writing back story and future or subjunctive when postulating, but the bulk of both works is present tense.
I feel lucky that I pickled them both up and read them at the same time.