Live in the Present, but Don’t Write That Way

Let’s talk about the use of present tense in a memoir. I’ll start by making it clear, I’m not a fan; the reason being, it’s impossible to have hindsight in present tense. Among those I’ve met or read who write memoirs in present tense, the author usually gives as a reason the idea of wanting that sense of immediacy, of putting the reader in the moment. They think writing in present tense gives them that. For me, I’ve never felt any more sense of immediacy when reading a story in present tense than in past tense. What gives a book a sense of unputdownable immediacy is good writing. I’m not being a grouch here, it’s just true. Simply changing tense isn’t going to make your writing more compelling.

Insight Requires Hindsight

One of the hallmarks of good writing is insight. That doesn’t mean you have to narratively pop your head in and say, “What I learned from this was . . .” Of course not. Readers expect to simply read a story as it goes and interpret the information for themselves and glean insight from the actions of the character. Some memoirs interrupt the story with insightful narrative comments and some don’t. Either way is fine, so my objection to present tense is not a matter of wanting some come-from-the-future voiceover, it’s more the fact that its very difficult to stay consistent to a present tense, first-person voice, while also having insight into your story, and people usually don’t succeed.

First Person/Present Tense: a Tough Combo

Especially if the narrator is a child, using first-person voice (I, me) limits the writer a great deal already. The best way to deal with that limitation is to allow yourself, as the narrator, to look back on your life, as an adult, and give that adult-level insight even as you tell the story in first person. But to add present tense to this already difficult situation further limits your ability to express insight. Usually people either break out of the first person or the present tense at many points throughout the book, making it all very unnecessarily confusing and inconsistent. So, for my money, there isn’t really any benefit to writing a memoir in present tense. I’m always open to someone proving me wrong, but so far, it hasn’t happened.

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