Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Narrative tenses

A writer friend was describing her dilemma last night of trying to decide whether to tell her memoir stories in narrative past or narrative present. And it's an interesting problem. If you're writing memoir or fiction, or even non-fiction that makes use of narrative in story examples, it's a good thing to contemplate.

Compare these two examples:

When she walks in, I'm sitting alone in the apartment. Fred has just left. Our argument hangs in the air like beach fog and I wonder if she notices.

Narrative present creates an immediacy of action, drawing the reader into the scene more easily than the past tense.

When she walked in, I was sitting alone in the apartment. Fred had just left. Our argument hung in the air like beach fog and I wondered if she noticed.

 However, narrative present is hard to sustain and can become rather corny and inauthentic. Most longer writings (more than a scene) are best served by the narrative past.

When I wrote my memoir, I used the narrative present for very specific, dramatic scenes but I used narrtive past for the bulk of my story telling. This can be fun to experiment with for both fiction and non-fiction purposes to see the effects.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Finding inspiration

As I write more poetry, I'm becoming a collector of odd phrases, things people say as part of a conversation. I've always collected these as writing prompts for fiction, especially those that hint at a story behind. Now I'm also looking for the interesting turn of phrase, those that carry an emotional spark or revive a memory, or set me thinking

When I'm in the middle of writing fiction, especially a novel, it's my imagination that's hard at work to weave the tales of these characters and the process goes on a long time. But with poetry, there's a constant need for fuel, for inspiration. So I'm changing my detective habits and listening harder to the way others speak and think. It's fascinating. Here's a poem from a phrase I heard in Nashville.

Up Burnside on the 20

I’m a slave to transit fashion, the pretty blonde said,
And Mrs. Malaprop aside, I thought about butts in navy
Polyester grown wide from eight-hour shifts
Behind the wheel and baby blue cotton shirts tight
Across the spare tire created by doughnuts and
64-ounce caffeinated colas that keep the hands
Steady on the wheel in rush hour
With buttons that gape high over the breasts
And draw the eye away from the embroidered
Marilyn or Shawonda on the pocket,
Shirttails stuffed into those same navy 
Pants even though loose they would have brought
Some relief to the low-slung gut of Ted or Harvey or Mike
In the last hours of an evening shift out to Gresham,
And those military-style jackets cropped to the waist
That only look good on a few slim types in their youth
And I wondered who designs transit uniforms and why
There aren’t more styles for all those different bodies
Driving the bus