First-person present tense

(I wrote this in May and would finally like to move it out of my draft folder!)

To my shock, I recently remembered that I’ve used first-person present tense myself, in spite of how weary I am of it in today’s market. It’s just been so long that I’d honestly forgotten about it.

Billions of people all over the world, in all religions (not just the Indian and Eastern religions), believe in reincarnation. Many of them have past life memories. It’s a complete myth to claim that most people say they were famous people like Cleopatra or Joan of Arc. The vast, vast majority of people who remember past lives, either in fits and starts or vividly, remember ordinary lives. Even if they lived in extraordinary times, they were still ordinary people. One of my reincarnation books says that a large survey group, when regressed to the first century (forget if it were BCE or CE), primarily recalled lives in Turkey and the Indian subcontinent, and a few other places. That totally blew the researchers’ theory out of the water, that most of the people would claim lives in the Roman Empire or Israel, the two places most people associate with that era.

I began having vivid nightly nightmares about my past life at the age of three. When I was fifteen and the dreams returned (this time complete with xenoglossy, fluent dreaming or speaking under hypnosis in a language one does not know when conscious), it dawned on me that I had had a past life in Germany during the Shoah. Those nightly nightmares from age three, which I still vividly remember to this day, the nightmares that gave me such intense pyrophobia, were of Krystallnacht. And the second part of that nightly nightmare was of a concentration-camp. Tell me one good reason why a three-year-old would be having nightmares about either of those things, or even know they existed. And give me one good reason why a high school freshwoman would start dreaming in fluent German about life in Germany during the Thirties and Forties.

So in the fall 0f 1995, when I was starting my sophomore year of high school, I began writing down these dreams and memories, in fragmentary form, in my journal of the time, Cecilia. In my junior year of high school, I began writing past life freeverse poetry. The first of these poems, “‘Zug'” (“‘Train'”), won third place/honorable mention in the junior class division of a poetry competition at my high school, and was included in a school-published book of the poems and displayed in the school library, which also serves as the general library for that town. I also regularly did a meditation/regression exercise at night, which helped me to recover more memories, including my old surname, Estermann.

The poetry and the prose memories were all in first-person present tense. I admit I was influenced by the style of Isabella Leitner’s own Shoah memoirs, the most haunting, unforgettable book I’ve ever read. Isabella also wrote her memoirs down in short fragments, in the present tense. Some years later, I read Livia Bitton-Jackson’s several Shoah memoirs (including books covering her life after the Shoah, which unfortunately many Shoah survivors’ memoirs don’t cover in enough depth). She also wrote in the first-person present tense. Who knows, perhaps I’d come to associate that style with Shoah memoirs told in fragmentary or vignette-style chapters, as opposed to memoirs such as Aranka Siegal’s.

I think it works because the narrator is writing these events as though they’re unfolding right now and she’s reliving them in her mind, not dispassionately looking back on past events. Example:

We freeze. Someone has heard the tiny sound Lorelei made when she turned over in her sleep. Why couldn’t we just stay in Switzerland? Are we about to be arrested? Will They torture us by prolonging the attack?

I catch Lorelei’s eye as I walk with Dorchen, Bettchen, Ilse, and Erma to work duty. Can it be that only a week ago I had hair and was dressed in real clothes? Now I look like a hideous monster, a bald, ageless, sexless hag clad in rags and wearing wooden clogs, while our beautiful Lorelei gets to keep her hair. I will never forgive Them for turning my Lorelei into a prostitute.

Perhaps it feels more natural because the narrative is focused on very big things, and Oda only happens to be the one relating these haunting memories? It’s not a self-centric story. And when you choose first-person for fiction, as opposed to memoir, it can be self-defeating if there are high stakes involved. You know the narrator survived to tell this tale.

One day I’ll return to collecting these scraps of memories and put them all together under the title What Oda Remembers: A Reincarnated Memoir. My name was Oda Estermann, and I believe I lived from 1926 to 1953, dying in Australia shortly after childbirth. Oda was unable to overcome her traumatic memories. Only in this life was I able to heal and come to terms with them. Perhaps that is why I almost never dream of Oda anymore, since I’ve made peace with my soul’s past and don’t really need her anymore. I even returned to my soul’s birthright thanks to her.

2 thoughts on “First-person present tense

  1. Very interesting. I’m not sure if I believe in reincarnation. I do believe in angels and demons and I know they can both give us dreams and visions, sometimes to relay a message from God and sometimes to torture and confuse (if it’s a fallen angel). I’ve had experiences with both. My novel that’s coming out soon is told in first person present tense and my editor thinks I’ll sell more copies if it’s first person past tense. I thought that would ruin the high stakes thing also but she said past tense doesn’t always have to be happening long ago . . .it could’ve happened 2 minutes ago and now the narrator is telling it.

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    • I’ve heard some people attribute past life memories to something called DNA memory, which is sort of like Carl Jung’s race memory theory. Basically, we’re supposed to have the memories of our ancestors stored in our DNA, at least up till when each succeeding set of ancestors were conceived. I haven’t read much about that theory.

      I’d probably have a nervous breakdown if I had to change my Russian novels or contemporary historical family saga books into past tense, given how long they are!

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