Exercise 2: Which Tense?

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Thank you for the first Workshop and your comments so far.  You make some good points and I realise that I have been overly cautious in writing about my characters.  That “would have been” just has to go.

I have done the first two exercises and it has convinced me to stick to present tense or simple past tense wherever I can.  I have attached my article with the exercise 2 treatment.

To John:

I agree with you that by using the present tense, it not only provided a sense of urgency but it also produced an intimacy that I liked. I wanted to know more.

Interestingly, the structure of sentences became far more lucid and fluid and it was not only easy to read, but the author engaged me. This should tell you something!

I hope from this exercise, you can see how use of tense can be used in your story. For instance, perhaps Medhurst’s own words could be in the present tense? Although the story might be mainly in simple past tense, the use of conditional perfect progressive could be used in contrast, when Medhurst (and the author) are not so certain about something. In this sense the reader will be totally empathetic with the uncertainty of the situation.

On a slightly different note, I wonder if in doing this exercise, it might not go some way to answering Exercise 5.  I would like to suggest that your ancestor’s story is not his alone but yours too. Given what I learned in just that short piece, I am fascinated about the emotional and physical journey that your great great grandfather has set you on. Is that not part of this story?

Exercise Two

Present tense

All my life I have known that I had an ancestor who was a missionary in China. As a young child I used to play with a Chinese pagoda and my mother told me that her grandmother was born in China. Beyond that I knew nothing. Two years ago I purchased a book called “China: It’s State and Prospects” which was written by my great great grandfather in 1838 and so began the revelation of the fascinating life of Walter Henry Medhurst.

It is 2009 and my wife and I are flying from Sydney to Jakarta, an 8 hour flight which will take us back 177 years. I have discovered that an orphanage which Medhurst started in 1832, when Jakarta was known as Batavia, is still operating today and with the help of Thomas Bergstrom, a current day American missionary I am going to meet the Directors of the Parapattan Orphanage. Jakarta is the Capital of Indonesia, a city with a population of ten million people enveloped by a steamy, tropical climate, living in extremes of rich and poor.

Thomas picks me up at my hotel and gestures across the freeway towards a shopping centre to show where we are planning to have lunch with the Directors. It looks quite close but I am yet to experience Jakarta’s legendary traffic snarls, which result in us taking forty five minutes to travel a distance that I thought might take five. The journey allows Thomas to brief me about Parapattan, his involvement teaching English and providing training on computers and sourcing charitable donations for the orphanage.  His motivation derives from his Christian beliefs, in the same way that Walter Medhurst was motivated to start the orphanage and I am going to meet with a dozen or so people who have the same religious dedication. As a somewhat sceptical agnostic on religion I am feeling a little bit guilty in claiming a connection to these well motivated people, but I have to admit an admiration for what they do and I am ready and willing to help them if I can.

I receive an unbelievable welcome from my hosts which makes me feel even more guilty and undeserving, but I am consoled by the genuine pleasure they show at having someone from overseas share an interest in their history. “If only you had come 2 years ago,” they said.  “You could have been at our 175 year anniversary celebrations.”

After lunch we venture again into the Jakarta traffic and head to the orphanage for a tour of the facility, a discussion of their operations and a chance to meet the children when they arrive home from school. There are currently about 65 girls and boys at Parapattan, ranging in age from five to eighteen and all of them attend private Christian schools.  They are well prepared for our visit and the children are eager to show us some of their achievements, plus we are entertained by a musical recital and a performance by their choir which brings a tear to my eye. I am asked to say a few words to the children which one of the senior girls translates for everyone else. Overall a very emotional and memorable time for my wife and I.

Our business is currently doing quite well in Australia so I am pleased to be able to offer the Directors some assistance in funding the construction of a library for Parapattan and we agree on a process to cost the project and arrange for the work to commence as soon as possible. The resulting facility will be known as The Medhurst Library.

 

  1. This is happening now so feels more active and draws the reader in.
  2. Makes me want to know what happens next.
  3. I am more encouraged to add thoughts and feelings when writing in this tense.

 

Past tense

 

All my life I have known that I had an ancestor who was a missionary in China. As a young child I used to play with a Chinese pagoda and my mother told me that her grandmother was born in China. Beyond that I knew nothing. Two years ago I purchased a book called “China: It’s State and Prospects” which was written by my great great grandfather in 1838 and so began the revelation of the fascinating life of Walter Henry Medhurst.

 

In 2009 my wife and I were flying from Sydney to Jakarta, an 8 hour flight which would take us back 177 years. I had discovered that an orphanage which Medhurst started in 1832, when Jakarta was known as Batavia, was still operating and with the help of Thomas Bergstrom, a current day American missionary I was going to meet the Directors of the Parapattan Orphanage. Jakarta is the Capital of Indonesia, a city with a population of ten million people enveloped by a steamy, tropical climate, living in extremes of rich and poor.

 

Thomas picked me up at my hotel and gestured across the freeway towards a shopping centre to show where we were planning to have lunch with the Directors. It looked quite close but I am yet to experience Jakarta’s legendary traffic snarls, which resulted in us taking forty five minutes to travel a distance that I thought might take five. The journey allowed Thomas to brief me about Parapattan, his involvement teaching English and providing training on computers and sourcing charitable donations for the orphanage.  His motivation derived from his Christian beliefs, in the same way that Walter Medhurst was motivated to start the orphanage and I was going to meet with a dozen or so people who had the same religious dedication. As a somewhat sceptical agnostic on religion I was feeling a little bit guilty in claiming a connection to these well motivated people, but I had to admit an admiration for what they do and I was ready and willing to help them if I could.

 

I received an unbelievable welcome from my hosts which made me feel even more guilty and undeserving, but I was consoled by the genuine pleasure they showed at having someone from overseas share an interest in their history. “If only you had come 2 years ago,” they said.  “You could have been at our 175 year anniversary celebrations.”

 

After lunch we ventured again into the Jakarta traffic and headed to the orphanage for a tour of the facility, a discussion of their operations and a chance to meet the children when they arrived home from school. There were currently about 65 girls and boys at Parapattan, ranging in age from five to eighteen and all of them attended private Christian schools.  They were well prepared for our visit and the children were eager to show us some of their achievements, plus we were entertained by a musical recital and a performance by their choir which brought a tear to my eye. I was asked to say a few words to the children which one of the senior girls translated for everyone else. Overall a very emotional and memorable time for my wife and I.

 

Our business was currently doing quite well in Australia so I was pleased to be able to offer the Directors some assistance in funding the construction of a library for Parapattan and we agreed on a process to cost the project and arrange for the work to commence as soon as possible. The resulting facility will be known as The Medhurst Library.

 

1.     This reads more like a report.

2.     Does not draw the reader in as much.

 

Conditional past progressive.

 

All my life I have known that I had an ancestor who was a missionary in China. As a young child I used to play with a Chinese pagoda and my mother told me that her grandmother was born in China. Beyond that I knew nothing. Two years ago I purchased a book called “China: It’s State and Prospects” which was written by my great great grandfather in 1838 and so began the revelation of the fascinating life of Walter Henry Medhurst.

 

In 2009 my wife and I were flying from Sydney to Jakarta, an 8 hour flight which would take us back 177 years. I had discovered that an orphanage which Medhurst started in 1832, when Jakarta was known as Batavia, was still operating and with the help of Thomas Bergstrom, a current day American missionary I was going to meet the Directors of the Parapattan Orphanage. Jakarta is the Capital of Indonesia, a city with a population of ten million people enveloped by a steamy, tropical climate, living in extremes of rich and poor.

 

Thomas picked me up at my hotel and gestured across the freeway towards a shopping centre to show where we were planning to have lunch with the Directors. It looked quite close but I am yet to experience Jakarta’s legendary traffic snarls, which resulted in us taking forty five minutes to travel a distance that I would have thought might take five. The journey allowed Thomas to brief me about Parapattan, his involvement teaching English and providing training on computers and sourcing charitable donations for the orphanage.  His motivation derived from his Christian beliefs, in the same way that Walter Medhurst was motivated to start the orphanage and I was going to meet with a dozen or so people who had the same religious dedication. As a somewhat sceptical agnostic on religion I would have been feeling a little bit guilty in claiming a connection to these well motivated people, but I would have to admit an admiration for what they do and I would have been ready and willing to help them if I could.

 

I received an unbelievable welcome from my hosts which would have made me feel even more guilty and undeserving, but I would have been consoled by the genuine pleasure they showed at having someone from overseas share an interest in their history. “If only you had come 2 years ago,” they said.  “You could have been at our 175 year anniversary celebrations.”

 

After lunch we ventured again into the Jakarta traffic and headed to the orphanage for a tour of the facility, a discussion of their operations and a chance to meet the children when they arrived home from school. There were currently about 65 girls and boys at Parapattan, ranging in age from five to eighteen and all of them attended private Christian schools.  They were well prepared for our visit and the children were eager to show us some of their achievements, plus we were entertained by a musical recital and a performance by their choir which would have brought a tear to my eye. I was asked to say a few words to the children which one of the senior girls translated for everyone else. Overall this would be a very emotional and memorable time for my wife and I.

 

Our business was currently doing quite well in Australia so I was pleased to be able to offer the Directors some assistance in funding the construction of a library for Parapattan and we agreed on a process to cost the project and arrange for the work to commence as soon as possible. The resulting facility will be known as The Medhurst Library.

 

 

1.    Conditional past tense is not really appropriate for this story since I can say these things happened unconditionally. In the biography I often write things based upon assumptions of what might have been at that time. I have to make those assumptions clear to the reader.

 

Summary of how each version influenced the narration.

 

The present tense version is definitely the best option for maintaining reader interest and involving them as if they are there.  It’s happening now!  It makes clear unconditional statements about what is happening and it sounds more believable.

 

The past tense version is almost as good but sounds a bit more like a report so it does not have the same urgency.

 

The third version which you refer to as conditional past progressive can be used but will make it quite difficult for the reader to fully comprehend what the author is saying.  When the author says “would have been”, “would have thought”, etc it leaves out an assumption. The full expression should be “would have been if such and such”, “would have thought if such and such”.  Can the reader be sure what the condition is?

 

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