Why First Person Present Tense Is Perfect For Your Memoir

Why First Person Present Tense Is Perfect For Your Memoir

Writers Write is a comprehensive memoir writing resource. In this post, we tell you why first person present tense is perfect for your memoir.

Why First Person Viewpoint?

It is your story. You are the only person who can tell it so it makes sense to tell in in the first person viewpoint.

Viewpoint is the lens through which you tell your story. Viewpoint affects the mood in a story. As I explained in How Viewpoint Works: ‘First person is intimate, second person is alienating, and third person is more comfortable.’

Memoirs are intimate, and they are often not comfortable. It makes sense to use first person for your memoir. A memoir is a kind of confession and using ‘I’ is good for this genre.

First person is as close as you can get to the reader. You are the protagonist and we see the story through your worldview, your senses, and your perspective.

Why Present Tense?

As I said in a previous post, the past tense tells us what happened, and the present tense shows us what happened. Given the immediacy and vicarious nature of a memoir, present tense is more suitable.

Readers feel as if they are experiencing the writer’s story in real time. The exposure to this pacing creates intense emotional reactions in the reader. Present tense adds to the suspense.

Past tense slows everything down and distances your reader from you. Present tense lets you take the reader with you in real time.

Examples Of First Person Present Tense In Memoirs

From Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir by Frank McCourt

Look at how the urgency and immediacy of these quotations in first person present tense makes the story of the author’s traumatic, poverty-stricken childhood more vivid.

  1. “The bus stops at the O’Connell Monument and Uncle Pat goes to the Monument Fish and Chip Café where the smells are so delicious my stomach beats with the hunger. He gets a shilling’s worth of fish and chips and my mouth is watering.”
  2. “I’m seven, eight, nine going on ten and still Dad has no work. He drinks his tea in the morning, signs for the dole at the Labour Exchange, reads the papers at the Carnegie Library, goes for his long walks far into the country. If he gets a job at the Limerick Cement Company or Rank’s Flour Mills he loses it in the third week. He loses it because he goes to the pubs on the third Friday of the job, drinks all his wages and misses the half day of work on Saturday morning.”
  3. “When she’s not talking to him the house is heavy and cold and we know we’re not supposed to talk to him either for fear she’ll give us the bitter look. We know Dad has done the bad thing and we know you can make anyone suffer by not talking to him. Even little Michael knows that when Dad does the bad thing you don’t talk to him from Friday to Monday and when he tries to lift you to his lap you run to Mam.”
  4. “The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.”
  5. “I don’t know what it means and I don’t care because it’s Shakespeare and it’s like having jewels in my mouth when I say the words.”

Saying ‘I’m seven’ is much more immediate and intimate than ‘I was seven’. Saying ‘my mouth is watering’ is more powerful than ‘my mouth watered’.

P.S. If you are telling your story more anecdotally (snippets with their own beginnings, middles, and endings) you can use first person past tense. Trevor Noah does this in Born A Crime where he recounts stories from his childhood.

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a memoir, look into our Secrets of a Memoirist course.

 by Amanda Patterson

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If you want to read more about memoirs:

  1. How A Flashbulb Memory Can Help You Define Your Memoir
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  4. Yes, You Do Need Scenes And Sequels In Memoirs
  5. Where Should You Begin Your Memoir?
Posted on: 11th December 2019