Tense

Why is it that some memories seem to want to continue to exist in the present tense whereas others fit comfortably into the past?

I wonder if it is something to do with whether conclusions have been made or not. There are memories of mine that feel fully rounded, and like any finished product can be passed on or put aside. But others are vague and require revisiting, often right from their source. They call out to be inhabited again, reworked and relived. Living is of course done so in the present tense.

There are active memories: memories of movement, of taking a walk somewhere, of swimming in an ocean. Others are more static, like a view across a valley, no doubt isolated between two forgotten active memories. How you got there, how you left.

Who can resist the temptation to dive back into an active memory again? To climb back into that childhood adventure and take part in it one more time. I throw the baseball to my brother. The sun is going down but we keep throwing until the ball is a dangerous blur in the dusk. When we are done we walk home in moonlight. Soon we are out on the deck drinking iced-lemonade and dad is smoking a cigar. My arm aches and I like that it aches. Can we do this again tomorrow? 

Other memories may require diving back in, yet the wish to do so may not be quite so tempting. There is the possibility that a memory requiring an active, present tense participation is perhaps a memory of something not quite processed on a psychological level. A trauma might be easier to visit from a distant and safe past tense, but in order to fully engage with it, in order that it might be overcome or fully integrated, would it not suit to live it again, in the present tense, but from a place of safety? Later that evening I put down the phone, and as I walk down the stairs I try to compose the right words, but what are the right words? She killed herself, I say to my mum at the bottom of the stairs. I feel that the words come from someone other than me, like I’ve been split in two. 

I enter a memory in present tense when I simply can’t remember the whole thing. It feels like the best way to draw things away from the forgotten shadows by being there. As close to them as possible. It feels a little like archaeology.

There is something, however, that feels a little restrictive for the reader when faced with present tense. And a little unreal, contrived even. Hold on, the reader might think, this is not happening right now because if it was, it wouldn’t yet be written. Often, I write a first draft in the present tense, but then edit it through so it reads in the past.

When I sat down to write To the Pines I had these characters in my head, and the sense that a story existed there. But the only way to find the story was to chip away, and that meant inhabiting the story and its characters, as it happened, in present tense. And that’s where I chose to leave it.

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