Reader, you’re late
When I talk about the experience of writing my debut novel, I often catch myself using an authority I do not recognise. This is what I was thinking, that is how it happened. I hear the assertion, and I find myself wondering: is that true?
It is not that I lie. I believe what I say. But simultaneously, I am suspicious. Remembering is a form of repaving, and the trouble is, writing is a fickle practice. Not in the writing but the memory of it. What happened in the immediate is different from how I look at it retrospectively. Now I talk with certainty, I commit statements as fact. But who am I to know?
I clutch onto the first 500 words I wrote of little scratch. I know the exact notepad they sit in, where I was when I wrote them. They are something I can remember, exactly, precisely. Or at least, I still believe I can. It’s reassuring to be able to physicalise; to take the notepad from the pile and see memory reflecting back.
These words now sit in the middle of the novel. They didn’t arrive alongside a vision for the whole book, yet they remain significant to me because they arrived first and alongside a question. Those 500 words were the beginning of my answer.
How do you write immediate, honest present tense? It reminds me of a moment in a Wallace and Gromit film where Gromit is laying out tracks ahead of his path as he speeds on in a toy train, desperately trying to get the next piece of track down so he can keep going. It’s a race, and you’re always behind. Everything moves too quickly.
The first iteration of the question was: is it even possible?
Writing present tense is deceitful. It claims to do the impossible. In saying I see an old man drawing his hand back out of the mouth of a postbox clutching a fish, I have already made you wait until the end of the sentence to get to the dominant image. In the moment, you would see FISH! Or fairer, you would see FISH! (OLD MAN POSTBOX) layered over each other. And what about the rest? The things you hear and smell, are reminded of or distracted by, what you push back down, what about the woman who walks past as you notice the man with the fish whose expression reminds you of a teacher you had as a child who once told you that human nails carry on growing after you die. You still cut your nails too short to counteract. Fish!
With present tense, the reader is already too late. It is impossible to convey simultaneity simultaneously.
I was in the office on my lunch break, my notepad in front of me, those 500 words not yet written, when a colleague walked past and asked me what I had been reading recently. It was a simple question, but one I couldn’t answer. My head span, taking in the hum of the air conditioning, the scrap of food left on the table, the way he was looking, sweetly, waiting. I was in tune with the present but the rest of me was blank. I was no longer able to look back, to recall this was how I got here, that was what I was reading in bed last night. I was stuck in the present. But it was a harmless question. Everyone knows what it is for their head to go blank, to be unable to recall for a moment.
After the conversation had ended, I began writing immediately. I had been reading a lot of Javier Marías around that time: sentences that extend and extend until one idea has sprouted tens of things, and this moment reminded me of him – my mind circling, desperately trying to remember something whilst being fixed on the person in front of me, waiting for an answer. It clicked as a writing experiment. I wanted to work out how to write the threads of a moment. But how could I convey the way things simultaneously play out, when prose relies on the reader to reach the end of a paragraph?
To answer the question, I had to devise a system, but it didn’t feel that meditated. The system was waiting for me on the page – that’s at least what my memory tells me. It felt intuitive. I began to see the page as my protagonist’s mind. As you passed down the page, you passed through time. There were designated positions for internal and external experience, for what she saw, smelt, thought, felt. The prose broke into columns, channels and back again.
The process made me rethink how writing represents the way we think. Often, the shortcuts, the associations that overlap and feed each other, the inanities, are replaced by gleaming prose, by revelations. I wondered what it would be like to write the ugly and ordinary parts too, to write all of it, and to work out what these patterns and neuroticisms might be used to hide.
This became the first 500 words I wrote of little scratch, and the only part where I felt, live, the act of translating experience into fiction. That could have been the end of the answer, if it wasn’t for the fact that in transferring the simultaneity to the page, I found something else. Passing thoughts are made unexpectedly permanent in being written down. There is a neurosis in that translation: fixing fleeting considerations on the page creates fixation.
How accurate does a writer need to be? The role of writing is not to imitate life exactly. When I began writing, all I wanted to know was, is it possible to come close. Can you write a mind in its full multiplicity?
The purpose came intertwined with my protagonist’s voice. There she was, obsessive, overthinking, performing – hiding something. These layers of immediacy, that overwhelm and bombard, could act like a shield. The question became then not, is immediacy possible to write, but: what does it mean for trauma?
‘Victim’ can be a branding. From then on, you are attached to the experience. There is an otherness. A harrowed woman, dark circles, scared of loud sounds, never sexualised.
Writing present tense is a way of escaping the clichés. It is a unifying tense. Sure, we all experience past, we all consider future. But the live act of existence is not tethered to selective memory or rewriting. There is an everydayness to present tense; it is the clock ticking, the shower turning on, a thought half-conceived.
Hilary Mantel has said, of writing her Wolf Hall trilogy, that she chose present tense because it did not carry the burden of history. ‘The present tense forbids hindsight,’ she wrote, ‘and propels us forward through this world, making it new just as it was.’
It discounts the future, but it also evades the past. The present is too active, too quickly moving, to linger too long on anything.
After the hour changed recently, my laptop stopped working. The processing stuttered, it froze, shut down, disconnected from the internet. When I spoke to an IT advisor at work, they told me it was rooted to the clock on my laptop, which had gone out of sync. If a computer does not know the time, he told me, everything is a struggle.
Present tense is unifying. But for my protagonist, who has buried the memory of her boss raping her, it also becomes a challenge. Every second is felt, often staggered through. Her trauma acts like a splinter, niggling at ongoing experience. Time becomes something to both struggle through and catch up with.
Experience relies on being translated into past, but if it cannot be recalled, if it is buried, suppressed, forced away, lingering unprocessed, what then? To keep going is to snag, stagger, push against resistance.
This is why I used the present tense, I say. Writing is a fickle practice, I say.
Which to trust?
I trust the first pull: which was not to tell a story, but to convey a moment. I wanted to write immediacy, that was my priority. In doing so, my protagonist began to unspool. But my narrative was moving present tense. That was my arc. The story of her life was pieces, hints, strands.
I have thought a lot about present tense over the last eight months. Is it eight? I had to count. I know the four walls of the one-bed flat we rent well, where plants have grown a little bigger, where the fridge fills, empties, fills, empties. There is a sameness that groups the months. I no longer plan, or look ahead, I rely less on time, on my calendar. Days have turned into a time loop, tossing me over and over.
Things have happened, moments have mattered, but I cannot pin them to a time. They float, disconnected, hard to distinguish. I have felt stuck in the present.
Is present experience relayed into profundity in retrospect? I do not think it is, yet I have wondered.
The thought was fleeting, but then I wrote it down.
Rebecca Watson is a freelance arts writer, and has been published in The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and Granta, among others. She works as the Assistant Arts Editor at The Financial Times. In 2018, she was shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize. little scratch (Faber, 2021) is her first novel.
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