It’s that time of year for making resolutions or—as some prefer—setting intentions.
Don’t worry. I’m not leading into a list of what I hope to achieve in 2013, at least not in terms of pages written, pieces published, books read, or pounds lost. I am, however, going to write about what I want more of in 2013:
I have a complicated relationship with the emotion, dating to an early humiliation on the schoolyard involving bunny ears. Every since Halloween 1967, I’ve had to be careful, lest I show too much enthusiasm and wind up scarred by ridicule. I’ll spare the details, but the event had lasting effect—I loathe costume parties—and racked up many dollars in therapy.
I don’t mean to sound flip; perhaps I’m just guarding against too much, well, enthusiasm. But as I get older and perhaps wiser (or at least more resilient), I welcome the sheer pleasure of enthusiasm—in the best, most generous way. When a friend gets an agent, and then a book deal. When I see my husband’s face break into a smile. When I help a student who brings his or her full self to the page.
And this week, brand-new into the new year, here’s my first big enthusiasm: a TED talk about the power of verb tense. A colleague forwarded the link, and I encourage all of you to click on it right away (well, not RIGHT away. Finish this post first,please). In it, Phuc Tran talks about the dark side of the subjunctive:
Any writer, any reader, knows the power of grammar—as Joan Didion famously says, “All I know about grammar is its infinite power. To shift the structure of a sentence alters the meaning of that sentence, as definitely and inflexibly as the position of a camera alters the meaning of the object photographed.” Any writing teacher looking to show the weakness of the passive voice needs only point to “Mistakes were made.” Constance Hale, author of the recent Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch, speaks winningly about how each sentence tells a story with the verb as the narrative engine.
Ever notice how, when you feel passionately about something, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve heard or read on the topic, you can always hear and read (and think) more? Your friends and your partner and your students may roll their ears the umpteenth time you go into the redemption at the end of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” or wax rhapsodic about the structure of “Roman Fever” but that doesn’t lessen your thrill when the unbearable grandmother sees the Misfit for who he is or when Mrs. Ansley moves ahead of Mrs. Slade.
Phuc Tran’s observations about the subjunctive and the imperative (and how the usage thereof affects our ways of thinking and being) made me tingle with that kind of excitement. Verb tense matters! Words matter!
Most writers—most writers in English, that is, or any language rich in what Tran calls “the probable, the possible, and the contrafactual” (i.e., the subjunctive)—write out of a kind of subjunctive thinking. Regrets, what ifs, second thoughts—these things find their way onto the page, into imagining alternate lives and scenarios.
Fictional doors swing open, but in our daily lives, subjunctive thinking can close off opportunity. The imperative keeps us on track. Instead of I’d have finished my novel by now if I hadn’t gotten sidetracked back in 2008, I’d be wise to lose the “if,” to drop the “should”s. My novel—and my psyche—would be better served by “I didn’t finish it and here’s what I’m going to do about it.”
Oops. I just used “would” twice. Let’s try again: I’m revising my novel. It is what it is.
I first heard this idiom—now clichéd—from a contractor, explaining some situation behind my walls necessitating more time, plaster, and billable hours. The pipe burst. The water created damage. It’s happened. Let’s deal with it.
Pipes aside, if, would, and should protect from the risk of too much unbridled enthusiasm. Words like those, artfully placed, guard against the plummet of disappointment. Maybe, back in 1967, if I hadn’t shown up on the playground as the only kid in costume, wearing pink bunny ears and a black leotard and pink tights and a little nosegay of cotton balls stuck together as a tail, the story would have gone differently. But it didn’t. My classmates laughed at me. It felt awful. And if I hadn’t felt so excited beforehand,…
Ah, but I did. And what joy to feel and share excitement, again and again.
What excites you, this first week in 2013? What enthusiasms are you discovering or nurturing?