The Beauty of the Present Tense

Corin Reyburn

Living in the “now,” in the present moment, has become an increasingly popular topic as we traverse through the get-it-done-yesterday mentality of our modern-day world. With futures growing increasingly uncertain and past memories told to us via innumerable and weightless arrays of digital images, it seems accessing the present is more relevant than ever. The meditative practice of mindfulness, of being present, has progressed to the forefront of our universal awareness. Meditation teaches us to observe thoughts as separate from ourselves, to watch them as a passing cloud. If one thinks of the present moment as an infinitesimally small unit of time, this takes some of the pressure off — maybe it’s impossible to truly have a thought in the moment. There is no time for it.

In the world of longform fiction writing, the present is at times treated as some sort of pariah — the present tense, that is. Towards the beginning of my writing career, I avoided using the present tense in my work. Almost all the books I read growing up were written in past tense. Writing teachers often discouraged using the present tense outside of short stories or flash fiction. Typically, the present tense is used to create a sense of immediacy and can provide a more instantaneous connection between the narrator and reader. Its use in longer fiction has grown more popular lately, particularly in young adult books, and has spidered its way through other genres as trends do.

At some point I got over my fear of writing in the present tense and began experimenting, not because I’d noticed others doing the same, but because I found it gave me a different toolkit that worked for certain types of stories I wanted to tell. What I enjoy most about writing in the present tense, and what is simultaneously frustrating at times — is its inherent simplicity. There is nowhere to hide in the present tense — it is direct, of the moment. It feels as though the characters are performing actions in real time, as opposed to telling the reader a story about something that has already happened. There is no escape into the past or future, no reflective distance. We experience something with someone as it is happening. We cannot look away.

Western culture is obsessed with linear time, with the order in which events occur, and our language reflects this. But time-oriented language is not universal. Though my mother is Chinese, I did not learn to speak Chinese growing up. Wanting to get closer to this culture that was a step removed from me, I began studying Chinese, which, though difficult at first, wound up being an enlightening and multi-faceted experience — for as one learns a foreign language, one also learns something about the way others think.

There are no verb tenses in the Chinese language. Whether something has happened yesterday, is happening now, or will happen tomorrow, the word is written the same, pronounced the same. Take for instance the word “kàn” (Pinyin romanization), which, among other things, can mean “to look.” It is always “kàn,” whether you are looking at something a week ago, today, or ten years from now. Interestingly, words do not typically change when serving as different parts of speech, either. If “kàn,” becomes an adjective, as in “hǎo kàn,” or “good-looking,” it is still “kàn,” depicted by the same logographic character. Though at first, I found this strange, I came to appreciate this aspect of the language. There is a beauty in its simplicity, an elegance to its straightforward functionality.

While I was studying Chinese, I also tutored ESL for native Chinese speakers. Asians who speak English as a second language are often made fun of for not using verb tenses correctly. I assume a fair amount of people, myself included prior to learning Chinese, do not understand why this disconnect occurs. We are at times too quick to mock that which is different before delving deeper. And how different are these ‘mistakes,’ really? If someone says, “I go to the store yesterday,” we understand what they are saying; we know when the act occurred. English, on the other hand, perhaps overcomplicates things, its plethora of verb tenses creating conditions for not only when something occurs in the past, present, or future, but also when something happens in the past for a duration of time, begins in the past but continues through to the present, etc.

In Eastern cultures, the understanding of space-time seems more spatial than linear in ways, and the languages and philosophies reflect this — almost as if the idea that everything is happening at once paradoxically allows us more breathing room, more space between the moments. If one needs to designate the time in which something occurred, this is easily achieved through context, but generally, it seems to matter less. One might take this concept and put a romantic spin on it. If you were beautiful yesterday, you will be beautiful today, you will be beautiful tomorrow. You will always be beautiful. If you are alive today, you have been alive, you will be alive. You will always be living. The concept of reincarnation is likely responsible in part for this manner of thinking. You are. You continue. You will always ‘be.’

I think perhaps as humans, we are geared — now more than ever in our soundbite society — to be looking towards the next thing, in fear of being left behind as time, that fleeting, ephemeral concept, seems as though it is moving ever faster, compressing in upon itself. Getting left behind is inevitable with such an outlook. We’ve been conditioned to think that something in the past or the future is likely to be better than the present. Maybe we’re afraid to really look at the present moment, afraid of what we might see. Will we see that we’re happy, that everything is actually okay? Will we have to face something we’ve been avoiding, something that can’t be healed until we take the time and energy to confront it? Maybe it’s time to be present with the present, to be here for whatever shows up, good or bad, to “let it be,” as the Beatles say.

Even if just for a moment.

Corin Reyburn is the author of “The Rise of Saint Fox and The Independence,” a novel about an underground cryptocurrency movement fronted by a London rock band that gains enough followers to spark a revolution. Book is available directly from the publisher, Amazon, and wherever books are sold.

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Web: www.corinreyburn.com Twitter: @corinreyburn