The Ghosts of Past and Present

By Virgina Parker Staat

“I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future.
The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me.
I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

One of our favorite Christmas traditions is to watch various movie adaptations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It occurred to me that the ghosts in this timeless story make a good parallel for writing. I realize that it may be a bit of a stretch, but work with me here…

One of our first tasks when beginning a new manuscript is to choose our narrative tense. Much like the Christmas Carol ghosts bring Scrooge transformation, our narrative choice brings transformation to our writing. Will we write in the past or present tense? Will we write I came, I saw, I conquered or I come, I see, I conquer?

Jess Rowe explained the difference between using present and past tense in our writing, “… present and past tense create completely different kinds of narrative: past tense involves retrospective intelligence and insight, present tense creates a sense of immediacy and what we might call non-insight, a lack of information about what’s next.”

In an era replete with social media and the Internet, writing in present tense has gained popularity, largely because it offers readers a feeling of immediacy. However, there is a danger in using present tense in nonfiction. Many believe that it diminishes the authenticity of our work. Using present tense may inadvertently make the reader feel that the piece is fictional. Mimi Schwartz said, “writing in present tense is technically a fiction, we are using “I am” for something that happened six or twenty years ago—or last week.”

Past tense has always been the standard in nonfiction writing. Particularly in journalistic, historical, technical, and scientific writing, past tense is preferred because it is essential for writers to keep their actual timeline clear. Because most outdoor writing falls into the nonfiction category, writing in past tense is the norm.

Present tense, however, has become an increasingly acceptable, albeit controversial, option for creative nonfiction and personal essays. We choose present tense when we want a unique emphasis to our work, giving it a cinematic feel or having it read like diary entries. As Shelley Salamensky said, “In writing nonfiction, present tense inherently asserts an understanding that this is a step-by-step reconstruction from memory—exploratory, tentative, hypothetical, potentially fallible.”

I admit that I am not a fan of writing in present tense. (Bah! Humbug!) As a storyteller, it feels unnatural for me to tell a story as if it were happening now rather than in the past. Writing in present tense also takes away too many favorite literary devices, including changes in chronology, foreshadowing, and authorial intrusion. I feel that it undermines my authority in a persuasive essay because having events unfold in real time doesn’t allow me to build my case. Present tense doesn’t readily allow me to fill out sensory details and reflections. Finally, my writing focus has always been about readability. I feel that writing in the present tense muddles my message and is distracting for my readers because they must suspend their concept of time and accept that the action is unfolding right now.

Like the Christmas Carol ghosts of past and present, our narrative choice brings different gifts to our readers. If you are undecided which narrative choice is right for your manuscript, I encourage you to try writing a paragraph or two in present tense then rewrite those paragraphs in past tense. Ultimately, the right narrative choice will emerge to serve both your story and your readers well.

(Author’s note: If you would like to read more about the pros and cons of writing in the present tense, professor and writer David Jauss has an excellent essay Remembrance of Things Present. The essay can be found on the Internet.)