Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Verb Tenses: A Revelation

For a few years now, I’ve had a running disagreement with my writer friend Randy Susan Meyers.* I’ve learned a great deal from her: the importance of adding misery to your characters’ lives, the need to keep the plot moving through a series of “little wants”. But I confess to mostly ignoring Randy’s comments about my verb tenses. The problem? She finds fault with what she calls my overuse of the word “was”—as in “she was sitting,” “the wind was blowing”. Change them to simple past, she says. She sat. The wind blew.

I do see how cutting out “was” after “was” can streamline a narrative. It’s like a sprinter tweaking some small element of posture to cut milliseconds off his stride. Add all those saved milliseconds up, and you’ve gained some speed (and brought down your word count). Still, I resisted making this change in my style because I could never see why it was wrong. How could you start a paragraph, or a chapter, by saying “she sat”? You needed a verb form that implied a more general state of being, a pre-existing condition, in a way. Hence, “she was sitting”. If you said “she sat,” that was like saying she had decided to take a seat in a chair at that very moment.

Then it hit me. All this time—years and years—I have been writing in English but thinking in Greek, which is, in fact, my first language. In Greek, to say “she sat” (E-ka-tse) is to describe a specific and finite event: the moment the woman takes a seat. If we Greeks want to describe a condition (to explain, for instance, a woman’s location in a room), we use a different verb form—one that says, in effect, “she was sitting” (ka-THO-ta-ne). English takes the all-you-can-eat approach. One verb tense to accomplish two things. All this time, I could have been using the Swiss Army knife of verb tenses and having that woman just sit. Instead, I kept hearing the English words through a Greek filter. In a languorous Mediterranean way, the woman was sitting, and sitting, and sitting.

Randy, I concede partial defeat. I won’t change them all, but I’ll change the ones I really should change.

It would be nice to think of myself as in the company of Stoppard or Nabokov—writers who have made lasting marks on the literature of a language not their own. I bet if I looked again at Speak, Memory, I’d find some extra verb forms, or some Latinate diction where none is needed. And doesn’t all of Stoppard’s incredible oeuvre prove his foreignness? Who but an acquirer of English could wield it with such delight and precision?

But who am I kidding? Nabokov and Stoppard produced masterpieces and I just keep getting idioms wrong. It’s the elephant in my closet.

*Randy's novel The Murderer's Daughters out in January 2010 (St. Martin's Press)

1 comment:

  1. Ah, at last the mystery is solved. I demanded a brusque English 'move along,' while you had Grecian yearning. 'Was' was your Rosebud!

    And thank you for pages and years of advice, some of which I acted upon just yesterday. Long live our Council.