Exercise for person and tense
from Ursula’s Steering the Craft
Exercise Six: The Old Woman
The old woman, while doing dishes, thinks about an event from her youth. The idea is to “intercut” between two times, “now” and “then” and the narration will move back and forth between these two times, or “time jumps.”
When I cut my toe on a broken Coke bottle
When I got caught skipping school
When I almost got caught with my boyfriend in bed
VERSION ONE is told in first or third person, telling it entirely in past tense or present tense
VERSION TWO is in third person, and uses past AND present tense
Don’t try to keep the wording identical, going through and simply changing pronouns and verb endings. “Write it over!” Ursula instructs. More will change than you think.
9/27/16 – fifteen minutes
I was standing at the sink the other night, my hands busy with sponge and soap, washing the dinner dishes. Evening was falling and I gazed into the twilight outside my kitchen window. Without my husband there to dry the dishes, my mind freely wandered, like it does, to present and past, now and then. Today I had gone barefoot in the house, and stepped on a little rock – I really should clean the floors – that found my exposed nerve. Under my left big toe, this old pain was the leftover from a long ago adventure in barefoot walking.
We had just moved to the east coast from Ohio, and I walked everywhere barefoot, as I had all my life. Going barefoot was almost a prideful thing for me. But our new neighborhood was not as clean or hazard-free as my old one, and on the way to the drugstore one afternoon, I stepped right on a broken Coke bottle.
(Oh youth! Walking along without a care, never looking down! As an elder now with multiple hip surgeries, I never walk anywhere with my head up. If I don’t scan the ground when I walk I might trip and fall, and the artificial joints might dislocate. This is an inserted note – and by the by, breaks the rule about not changing tenses in the first version!)
Blood began spurting out and I quickly turned around and headed for home. As soon as I came in the door, my mother rushed to me, but only to quickly wrap my foot in a dishtowel so I wouldn’t bleed on the beige carpet. I was pretty shook up. All that blood.
(She probably took me into the bathroom right around the corner to wash the foot and get a better look. It was the same bathroom I went in to clean up when I got my period a year later.)
We were new to the neighborhood so called on our only acquaintance, the woman who lived behind us. She loaded us in her car and took us down to the local emergency room where she knew a surgeon. He quickly stitched up my wound.
Maybe a little too quickly. Later when the stitches came out and I was fully healed, I still had an excruciating sensitivity at the site of the cut. If touched, I recoiled and winced. Like an exposed nerve. That was the end of wearing zoris – flip-flops – or any sandals that would go between my big and second toes.
(Zoris must be a Japanese term for these kind of sandals. If so, the term had only been in use for about twenty years, since American soldiers were in Japan during the second world war.
It was also the end of going barefoot outside, ever again. I was in the big city now, no longer a farm girl. Though I had not lived on a farm before, I had acted as if I did, a small town girl. Perhaps even small towns today had broken glass in the streets, and there were no more idyllic places with clean streets and barefoot girls.
VERSION TWO – change to third person, and change tense from present for now to past for then
9/29/2016, fifteen minutes
The old woman is standing at the sink washing dishes. She shifts her weight from leg to leg to take pressure off her sore hip. Evening is falling and she gazes out the kitchen window into the dimming day, alone with her thoughts, her husband out of town so not helping with the dishes as is their long standing custom. She flexes her big toe, tender from an old injury, and her mind suddenly fills with the visceral memory of long ago . . .
She was just a girl, fresh from the tidy Midwest town where she had grown up. At her old home she had gone everywhere barefoot, a remnant of her farm forebears. So on that hot September afternoon she hadn’t thought twice before striking out for the drugstore a couple blocks away. She was shocked by a sudden sharp pain under her big toe as it was sliced open by a broken Coke bottle in the gutter. Gasping with the pain, she wheeled around and began hopping home to the new house. She could see it was bloody and sure enough, as soon as she cleared the front door her mother gave a shout of dismay, as much for the beige carpet as her daughter’s bloody foot.
The neighbor lady came at her mother’s call and soon they were all in the car heading to the hospital. The girl – at thirteen only just barely expected to know better – was quiet as the surgeon with the shaky hands and whiff of liquor stitched up her cut foot.
Later she recalled those details about the doctor, though she only felt the pain of the procedure at the time. But as time passed the wound scar never stopped being painful, excruciatingly tender to the touch, and she had to give up the rubber flip-flops of her youth forever. She never walked barefoot again.
The old woman pauses for a moment, her hands stilled in the soapy water. A small step into the losses of adulthood, she thinks. More would come. It is through such ordinary events that childhood recedes in a carefree nostalgia, never to be regained.
Notes from 2016 after doing the exercise:
In Version One, writing in first person seemed to open more doors for “asides” and freeform flow writing.
In Version Two, this became a better story with the distance of third person and the change in tense. I was surprised, but noticed it right away. Greater insight and details are available to me in third person. Somehow I’m able to get further in by using what’s called “close third person narrative.”
Writing in third person does make me feel more sympathetic to myself.
Note from 2022, in hindsight:
I was surprised at how different the two versions were, and at the time seriously considered changing the first person narrative of my book to third person. Because it is a memoir, that would have almost necessarily changed it to fiction as well. As it was, I used fiction-writing techniques to write my memoir, keeping my story in the first person, and telling my lost grandmother’s story in third person narrative.
Even though this is a bit of a mess, I’ll share it as an example of something I learned by studying writing exercises from a book, and that even when I went “off road” I still came away with something useful.