Pros & cons of present tense in memoir

Have you tried to write a memoir in present tense? It’s a perfect fit for many memoirs, but can be challenging for the writer. I recently attended a panel discussion on this topic at the 2014 AWP conference, presented by Kate Hopper, Hope Edelman, Bonnie Rough, Marybeth Holleman, and Ryan Van Meter, and they had us all chewing on some compelling factors:

  • Present tense brings a sense of urgency to a story by having the reader experience the journey alongside the author. It is particularly useful for “showing the inside of a life-changing moment.” It may not be appropriate for stories that demand a broad understanding of the context or that are traumatic or need to demonstrate ambivalence.
  • Present tense is by nature, light on reflection. This can be counterbalanced with metaphor, flash-forward, epilogue, and “now I understand that …” type insertions.
  • Present tense invites suspense and tangents, as happens in real life, and the reader is experiencing these moment-by-moment with the narrator.
  • Several teachers and attendees commented that they write all first drafts in present tense to help access memories and details more easily.

Suggested exercises:

  1. Return to a story draft that feels like it needs more work and convert it to present tense. Be sure to make a copy of the story first so you can create a separate present-tense draft. I recommend you start by using your software’s search feature to locate instances of past and/or future tense verbs, and change those sentences first. This will quickly set the story askance and highlight other areas that need attention. Did this improve the story? Was it difficult to maintain present tense while you worked? Did it help you remember additional details?
  2. Write a new story in present tense. One panelist asserted this is particularly useful for memory snippets that you’re not sure why you remember the scene or event. Writing the story in present tense may reveal why it’s a persistent memory. What were the challenges while you wrote? And the benefits?


See more writing tips
And more writing exercises

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Categories: writing exercises, writing tips

2 Comments on “Pros & cons of present tense in memoir”

  1. April 22, 2014 at 3:47 pm #

    Hey! This is perfect timing for me. I am currently working on the manuscript for my first book – a memoir. It will cover from December 2010 to the present. I started writing it back in August of 2012 and have struggled with whether to write it in present or past tense (as I am still living and writing the story). Having never done this before, I wasn’t sure which was better.

    This article really helped shed light on the subject for me.


    • April 22, 2014 at 10:23 pm #

      Hi Jay, you know how to make a blogger’s day. Glad this article was useful. Thanks for stopping by!

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