It's issues like that which make verb tense and point of view tricky concepts to teach in a workshop-- tricky to explain and tricky to write. To work on the page, both need to be mostly invisible to the reader. Usually when I teach them, I tell students to pick a single tense and a single point of view, and stick with it. Don't fool around, I tell them. This doesn't mean, of course, that it's not possible to fool around. But you really have to know what you're doing. A change in tense or point of view halfway through a narrative is a big deal; it sets the story spinning off in a whole other direction, and the writer has to be absolutely certain that the reader can follow. I still get nervous whenever I try it. My teachers, y'see, told me not to fool around.
The next exercise in Le Guin's Steering the Craft, which deals with how tense and point of view work together, is longer and more complicated than some of the others in the book. I found that I had to write several versions of the first part of the exercise before I settled on something I liked. I think my Version One is a much stronger one than Version Two.
This should run about a page or so; keep it short and not too ambitious, because you're going to have to write the same story at least twice.
The subject is this: An old woman is washing the dishes, or gardening, or editing a Ph.D. dissertation in mathematics, or...whatever you like, as she thinks about an event that happened in her youth.
You're going to write this sketch by intercutting between the two times. "Now" is the kitchen, the garden, the desk, whatever, and "then" is what happened when she was young. Your narration will move back and forth between "now" and "then." There should be at least two of these moves or time-jumps.
Choose a PERSON:
a) first person (I)
b) third person (her name/she)
Choose a TENSE:
a) all in past tense
b) all in present tense
c) "now" in present tense, "then" in past tense
d) "now" in past tense, "then" in present tense
Write the story. Label it-- Person (a), Tenses (c)-- or whichever you chose.
Version Two: Now write the same story in the other person and a different choice of tenses (Label it.)
Don't strain to keep the wording of the two versions identical, and please don't just go through it on a computer changing the pronoun and verb endings. Write it over. Changing the person and tense will almost certainly bring about some changes in the wording, the telling; and these changes are interesting.
Within one version, the verb tense may shift, but the person of the verb can't. Stick with either "I" or "she" in Version One. Then use the other person in Version Two.
Additional Option: If you want to go on and play with all four tense options, do.
Another Additional Option: After you have done the exercise as directed, if you want to change the person of the verb within one version (using one person in "now," the other person in "then"), try it. (Le Guin 76-8)*
Version One - Person (b), Tense (a)
The cut was deep. Blanche dropped the utility knife on the carpet and marched from the room without a word, sucking at the wound on her finger. Josie had been right, of course. She should never have tried to use it; she couldn't grip the handle properly. She wished now that she had thought to bring the knife with her. In another moment Josie would find it, and come running; she couldn't bear the idea of her niece hovering, fussing, telling her to wash it well, and put some peroxide on it, and wrap this way, and put pressure on it, hold it tight and sit still, Aunt B., just wait till I find my keys; now come on, we're going to the ER...
Blanche padded into the bathroom and ran the cut under the cold water tap. The cut stung dreadfully, almost like a burn; Blanche could see the spongy layer beneath, pink and raw in the running water, welling up again with blood the moment she removed it. She plunged her hand back under the stream and clenched her teeth. She wouldn't call out. How Josie hollered, that time she skinned her knee on the sidewalk! Blanche made Josie stick her leg under the bathtub faucet, then accidentally turned on the hot water instead of the cold; Josie yelled and tried to hit her. Blanche frowned at the blood oozing from her own fingertip. The poor kid! Blanche had never really understood how much it must have hurt; she only remembered Josie's bony little fist in her shoulder, and the look she'd given Blanche, when Blanche slapped her. Something fell out of Josie, then, out of both of them. Blanche saw it in her face, and knew Josie could see it in hers. It left a blank space. What was it, that thing which wasn't there any more? She nearly called out to Josie, then, in her fright; she squeezed her lips firmly together.
Blanche shut off the water and wound a length of gauze slowly round her fingertip, listening to Josie grumbling, pushing something heavy across the carpet. She tugged at the end of the strip of gauze, pulled it tight, fastened it with tape. Any minute now. Blanche pulled the little wicker stool from beneath the vanity and sat on it. Any minute now-- but there wouldn't be anything for Josie to do. Blanche noticed a patch of blood beginning to show through her bandage. She gripped her finger with her opposite hand and squeezed to stop the flow. Any minute now. She wouldn't call out. There wasn't any need.
The muttering and the shoving-sounds ceased. "Aunt B.?" Josie called. There.
Blanche called cheerfully back. "I'm fine," she said. "There's nothing to worry about."Version Two - Person (a), Tense (a), though with a bit of (c)The moment the knife sliced into my fingertip, I knew I should never have tried to use it on the box. Of course Josie had been right: I really couldn't grip the thing properly. It was a stupid thing to have done. Josie still had her back to me; I dropped the box cutter and headed for the bathroom, sucking the blood from the wound as I went. It would only be a matter of time before she found the knife on the floor and came running to make a fuss, to see that I washed the cut well, and bandaged it tight, and applied pressure, and before you'd know it we'd be on our way to the ER...I couldn't be doing with all that nonsense. I ran my finger under the cold water tap. I knew well enough how to take care of a cut.
A person never really understands how much ordinary water can sting, not till they've hurt themselves badly enough. It burns. That time Josie skinned her knee running down the hill, and I cleaned the wound for her-- she didn't just yell. She tried to hit me. Poor kid. How was I to know that her father had reconnected the plumbing the wrong way around, so the hot water came out when the cold should have come instead? I shouldn't have smacked her. It was my fault that she fell-- I was the one who'd shouted Let's run, then dragged her off by the hand-- and we both knew it.
I've never been so sorry for doing a thing as I was standing there at the sink, gritting my teeth and watching the blood from my finger swirl away through the soap bubbles. I didn't yell, I didn't tell Josie, but I was sorry. All the same, I didn't call out; I bandaged up my finger, then sat down on the little vanity stool to wait. She'd turn up, before long. Then I'd smile, and Josie would see that everything was fine after all.
Blanche and Josie, by the way, are two characters from a novel I've never yet managed to finish. I think this exercise may have shed some light on an aspect of their relationship that I've been puzzling over for a while-- the lesson being that it can be useful to go back and revisit characters you've worked with before in a new context.
Coming soon: Is it ever a good idea to paint your new writing room a shade called Winsome Beige?
*Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland: The Eighth Mountain Press, 1998. p. 76-8.