Coffee: Cafe Pajaro, Trader Joe’s Brand
I spent a lot of today thinking about ‘tense.’
Most of my coffee logs are a mix of past and future, rarely present. That makes sense: I’m either talking about something that happened or making predictions about the consequences. The present is always me sitting at my computer slapping words out. You can only describe that so many times.
Most of my fiction, on the other hand, ends up in present. There’s some immaturity in that, I think. Fear of ‘telling the story,’ commanding authorship. I pass the buck and put the reader in the moment so I don’t have to describe it. Not a single one of my favorite books is written this way.
Here’s something else that’s present tense: music; by extension, lots of poetry; cinema; narrative video games. Whether you’re an actor or an observer to the story, the story happens now. But when you think about the kind of presence in a movie vs. the presence in a pop song I think you start getting to a distinction.
‘Movies’ are cinematically present – basically, the audience is stripped of their own perspective and transmitted into the film. You are less an agent and more an eyeball. What happens, happens immediately, you’re just along for the ride. But this isn’t a story being told to you, like a past-tense novel, rather one you’re witnessing. Fly on the wall.
The other kind of present – which you see in lyrics like “looking through my eyes; If perhaps you feel I woke up with you, just smile” – is more personal. It involves the audience as an agent. It muddies perspectives, pulling a bit of 2nd into 1st. You’re responsible to this story – you’re recognized. It might not be about you, but it involves you. And it’s happening with you whether you like it or not. Some of the storytelling comes back, though it’s abstract rather than direct. Here’s a set of passions, experiences that you’re let in on intimately. You’re identified with the speaker.
The distinction is close to boiling down to 1st versus 3rd perspective but I think it’s still substantially different than that. While I don’t think you can have a kind of involved-present tense without it being told in the 1st person, I think you can have more or less involved presents in 3rd. The difference between: “The armies march to battle;” and “Armies march to battle; it’s what they do.” The second sentence involves you.
Anyway, I still think I’ve been writing fiction in present tense as a crutch, but as I try thinking about how to write in past it seems stale and maybe a little over-easy (and not in the good, gooey-egg sort of way). I don’t know. We’ll see.
As you might have guessed, I’m stuck on the book again. My second novel’s giving me a much harder time than the first, but maybe it’s always that way. I’m writing it in first and finding it overly cumbersome in some scenes. In others, it clicks. I feel like there’s a spool of twine inside my head. It’s all the bad habits I built writing since I was five. And now that I’m starting to form good habits, I’ve got to pull out all that twine to make room. It’s a long process. I’m going a little crazy. I don’t think I could write this book in past tense if I tried. I have tried. I’ll finish it one way or another.
Currently Reading: Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain
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School Days, Shoji Meguro (Persona Soundtrack)
Looking through my eyes; If perhaps you feel I woke up with you, just smile