A hundred lifetimes ago, in undergraduate and graduate writing workshops, I studied the ways that tense and perspective change the tone of a story. When it comes to my emotions and my words, I find that tense and perspective are the best tools I have for bringing readers into the story quickly. For example: What happens when I tell this in the past tense — “My daughter could barely breathe” — versus when I tell it in present tense: “My daughter can barely breathe”? What happens when I tell a story in first person (“I was frightened“) versus when I tell them the story in second person (“You will be far colder than one would expect“)?
For me, past tense offers distance. As I write in past tense, I feel separated from the events. I can write without getting too caught up in the moment as I experienced it in real time. I am calm, almost clinical in my descriptions. It reminds me of the unwavering steadiness I’ve been able to construct in moments of real trauma by simply breathing deeply, disassociating from my emotions, and behaving like a soldier on a mission. In past tense, I am a reporter, and even when I report on the raw and furious emotions in our family’s history, it is with a detached, analytical eye.
Present tense is where I get you invested. I am here, in the sun-filled living room, with the baby in my lap who is struggling to breathe. Or, I am lying on the floor of my basement in the cold dark, and I think, for a moment, that I can hear my screaming daughter two floors above me as I sink into the drugged sleep of a woman past the edge of exhaustion. You are watching me in real time. Neither of us knows what comes next. We are both — writer and reader — in my mystery.
But then, too, there’s the perspective, and the too-often-forgotten choices even memoirists have. In first person, the hand of the writer makes shadows in front of the campfire as you listen. It’s a monologue; there is an audience. Perhaps they identify, but more often, people read first person accounts and attribute all sorts of things to the writer. They see my picture, maybe, and then forever the “I” is a smiling woman with short brown hair. Readers think they know a first person writer.
Second person, on the other hand, is where the writer makes a mountain of assumptions about the reader. First off, the most important — this is your story. We all know that this happened to me, but when I use second person, I’ve dragged you into my body, my head, and the hospital room. You look out my eyes and see our baby’s hand, swollen so large the skin is splitting, and you fall with me, drenched in sweat, into the bed with her and hold her between us all night. Second person forces you to see and hear and smell and taste everything. It’s presumptuous to write in second person, but oh my is it less lonely there.
The key to immersion, it would seem, would be to write in second person and present tense. “You are in the window at the coffee shop, sipping a lukewarm mocha, a golden retriever tied to a bicycle on the sidewalk outside. Your heart pounds as you tell the story of your daughter’s meandering aorta to the person next to you, a mother with a newly diagnosed child, and you feel the bile rise in your throat as she describes the diets, the procedures, the doctors and special clinics in your past and her future.”
And that is powerful. That is effective. It is also exhausting to write with so much intensity.
So I keep on, working each bit, turning it in my hands and walking around it like the elephant in a room where all the blind men are me. I try to write in a way that opens my heart to you, offers you the option of inhabiting it for a moment or two, and keeps the invitation just urgent enough.
When I wrote the essay Sixteen with Jennifer Pastiloff’s beautiful publication The Manifest Station in mind, I found it too hard to re-read very often. I wrote it first in second person, then rewrote it in first person. My attempts at present tense were too hard to write at all. Because I did the thing about which I’m writing there — accompanying my daughter into surgery — sixteen times, perhaps it is simply too easy for me to slide right back into the moment. My pulse quickens; without my daughter here needing my calm, I can’t locate it anywhere.
This is a true story. It happened to me. It is happening to someone else right now. It might happen to you. I hope not.
(originally published on The Manifest Station)
Sixteen times, I’ve stood at the side of a raised gurney in an operating room and sung my daughter to sleep.
Sixteen times, I could faintly smell the scented oil the anesthesiologists rub inside the mask, the mask that delivered sleeping gas, the oil they put there to cover the smell of the gas, the gas she could still smell and taste, making her grimace until she was overcome.
Sixteen times, I kept singing. Sixteen times, I planted a kiss on her still-warm skin above the mask. Sixteen times, I walked back to the pre-operative room and gathered up my husband and our belongings, and sixteen times I shrugged and stiffly shook the vision of my limp and drugged daughter from my head.
“She’s fine,” I answered my husband when he looked at me, questioning. Though who knows? By then, many times, she may have had tubes down her throat, things pinching and scraping her insides in places I would never see with my own eyes. Fine? I suppose.
This has been a Finish the Sentence Friday post, hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee http://www.findingninee.com. The sentence this week begins “When it comes to my emotions and my words…”