In keeping with my last post where I notated such helpful creative habits as building on predecessors and keeping the company of like minds, I turned in the night–one of spotty sleep–to the short stories of Andrea Barrett, whose collection, Ship Fever, won the National Book Award. It was one of those serendipitous choices, the side of my bed being lined with books to select depending on mood. (I went to sleep initially reading Eric Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts which provoked nightmares based on a scene where a Gentile woman has her head shaved and is dragged through Nuremberg in a carnival-like atmosphere to be jeered at, poked, and prodded by the crowd for the offense of being engaged to a Jew. A book I’ve already read feels safer under such circumstances.) And what better mentor/predecessor, what more like mind than Andrea Barrett, to answer some thorny questions I’ve been wrestling with in the Einstein manuscript? Ship Fever is a collection of short stories about ground-breaking naturalists like Gregor Mendel, Carl Linnaeus, Charles Darwin, etc.
I’ve spent the last week rewriting a chapter I thought was in good shape when I noticed I’d written it in the past tense. That’s how it came out, the way I heard the voice of the story in my mind. I was about to tack it onto the 100 plus pages already written when I realized I had changed the ongoing front story into present tense, reserving past tense for flashbacks. But now, realizing I wasn’t hearing the story in present tense, I began to ask myself why, when it’s possible, of course, to write the front story in past tense and cast the flashbacks in past perfect. (Sorry if this is too technical for the grammarphobes. I’m a grammar nerd.)
Mindful that I need to have a reason for my choices, and that the reason in some way needs to mirror the task of the novel, I continued to grapple with this tense issue. Originally, I cast the front story into present tense because there were so many shifts in time in the opening passage of the novel, it seemed to help eliminate confusion for the reader. These time shifts I justified by labeling the opening section TIME, playing with Einstein’s revolutionary idea that time is not a constant. (Subsequent sections will have other physics-related titles like SPACE, FORCE, LIGHT, depending on how the metaphor works for what’s happening in the text.) But this still doesn’t demand I use present tense.
Enter Andrea Barrett’s story “Rare Bird.” Voila. Present tense. Hmmm. The story is about a disenfranchised, educated woman in 19th century England who challenges Linnaeus’ already-established notion that swallows hibernate underwater during the winter, a fact that, if true, supports Darwin’s evolutionary theory. (Linnaeus was the naturalist who categorized plants and animals with genus and species designations, a fact the reader already knows if s/he’s read Barrett’s stories in order, for the story “The English Pupil” precedes “Rare Bird” and establishes this fact.) It occurs to me in looking at Barrett’s story that she’s also juggling layers of time, of pastness. If her task is to bring the past into the reader’s present, it makes sense to use the present tense.
It’s easier to see on someone else’s work.
Then, her text solved an even thornier problem. I have two scenes juxtaposed in this first section where Mileva is pregnant in the first, but then I flash back to before she was pregnant. This is illogical at best, but when I juggled the scenes into chronological order, I lose the dramatic effect. Again, enter Barrett, dealing with a time problem. Her narrator says outright to the reader, “It’s September now–not the September following their meeting but the one after that: 1764.” Well, why not? Use the narrator to situate the reader.
Thank you, Andrea. (May I call you Andrea?) It’s hard to argue with your logic.