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?
I just discovered your blog Lindsey and will return. Thank you.
My dampening of enthusiasm came from an imitation of a monkey I did for an arts and crafts counselor I had a crush on in the Summer of ’65. She looked away. There were other times but I think that was the first. There wasn’t a hole dark or deep enough for me to crawl into that afternoon. I hate performing still, though I can talk in front of a group pretty well. Several dance workshops have helped me stand there without right away passing out. It’s mostly about not locking your knees.
Good to know I’m not alone in misguided animal mimicry from the 60s. Jim, so glad to have you as a reader.
I am a perpetual (and voluntary) victim of unbridled enthusiasm. It exhausts my husband and exasperates my children; It is the impetus for my crazyplate life. I love it and wouldn’t have it any other way!
I used this quote from Ecclesiastes in my blog post today, in fact, and it’s me all over: Whatever your hand finds to do, do with all your might . . . ”
The linguistic roots of “enthusiasm” are interesting: “the god inside”. An old Bible prof at school translated the original Greek thus: “You are engodded!” And it often feels that way.
Not a bad way to go, all things considered.
That is fascinating, Tracy — engodded! I love knowing about the etymology of “enthusiasm.” Your quote from Ecclesiastes reminds me of one from Colette: “You will do foolish things, but do them with enthusiasm.”
I love the second to last sentence of this post. Despite the sadness, to experience enthusiasm over and over, perhaps, is worth the risk of what might happen.
I was in a choir, All God’s Children, and we were to have a “dress rehearsal” in Orchestra Hall in downtown Chicago an afternoon before a big concert. My mom assumed that meant I was to wear my uniform: blue polyester skirt that skimmed my knees and had about as much shape as a potato sack, a red polyester vest with gold buttons that jangled loudly whether or not that were clipped together, a white shirt starched to the point of a fine sand papery feel, and nylons. Thick nylons. So that’s what I wore on the el that afternoon. Someone sitting next to me on the train lit a cigarette and the flame from the lighter got on my vest. She felt awful but I said not to worry about it because NOTHING could harm this outfit.
My mom was wrong about what I was to wear that afternoon. I was twelve years old sitting among other twelve year olds snickering about my flame retardant attire. But then we started to sing and no amount of embarrassment could topple the awed enthusiasm I had being a part of three part harmony. We sang about Mary walking through thorny woods and I remember so well wondering about her and the news she’d just been told. She was twelve too, wasn’t she?
Is that the carol that goes: “Maria walks amid the thorns / a thousand years no rose has borne” or something like that? I just flashed back to 7th grade chorus! Thanks for the input: I’m started to think a collection of these moments could work, called, what else?!