A Matter of Tense: Past or Present?

While editing the manuscript for Waiting for the Train, a depression-era journal written by my great grandfather, I ran into an unexpected problem; one not seen very often.  John MacDonald, the original author of the journal, often switches between past tense and present tense without warning. Sometimes he uses both in the same paragraph. Sometimes it’s in the middle of a single sentence.  Take a look at the following excerpt:

“And now I am, or can consider myself an indigent and subject to the whims and fancies of all my brothers and the public in general. They can ask questions if they want to, for am I not just one more burden on them? But rest assured, I didn’t dwell long on that angle of the situation, for if I was to get anywhere or have a place to sleep and something to eat, I will have to get a move on, and at that particular moment I was well in need of my breakfast.” (John MacDonald, Waiting for the Train, Chapter 1)

This particular paragraph starts out in the present tense, but swaps to past shortly thereafter.  Then, in the middle of a sentence, it returns to present again before flipping back once more. A possible explanation for this odd behavior in his writing, put forth by Dave Warner, is that John had hyperthymesia.  This neurological condition would have allowed him to recall an incredible number of experiences in his life in extreme detail.  

Therefore, while writing, he may not have been putting things down from memory as you or I might.  Rather, John MacDonald was, in a very real way, reliving his memories. His slipping between the present and those vivid moments in his past may be the culprit behind his frequent changes in tense.

As interesting as that is, it isn’t good writing.  Obviously this is an issue that requires the hand of an editor, but how should it be approached?  Use of either present or past tense is perfectly fine, especially in a journal like this, but in order to read smoothly it should be consistent throughout.  Normally I would seek the author’s opinion, but unfortunately John MacDonald is not with us to offer his guidance.

The most obvious solution, therefore, is to simply change each verb in the work to a single, standard tense.  As the majority of the journal is written in the past tense, this is what I leaned toward. “Am” would become “was”, and “can” would change to “could”.  This was certainly a solution, and probably an acceptable one given the circumstances. It might not, however, be the most elegant way to handle it.

When John MacDonald wrote these sections, he seemed to have been feeling a strong sense of immediacy.  The ideal solution, then, would be to preserve this immediacy for the reader as well, while still putting out a properly-edited finished product.  This is possible through the use of a few precise alterations. A change in tense is perfectly acceptable, after all, so long as the transition is clearly delineated in some way.

Based on all this, our final decision was to take parts of the journal which had the most uses of present tense, the most immediacy, and separate them out using italics.  This way, they read as though one were listening to John’s inner thoughts. A personal monologue that helps the reader to feel more of the same presence in the story that John himself must have while writing it.

Acting on this decision, and changing the instances of past tense into present for this particular section, it now reads like this:

And now I am, or can consider myself an indigent and subject to the whims and fancies of all my brothers and the public in general. They can ask questions if they want to, for am I not just one more burden on them? But rest assured, I won’t dwell long on that angle of the situation, for if I am to get anywhere or have a place to sleep and something to eat, I will have to get a move on, and at this particular moment I am well in need of my breakfast.” (John MacDonald, Waiting for the Train, Chapter 1)

This was a tricky problem, and we’d love to hear more opinions on it.  Feel free to share your own thoughts on how you would have handled this juxtaposition of tenses.

For more like this, look out for more blog posts and the publication later this year of Waiting for the Train, a depression-era journal by John MacDonald.

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