Verbs, like people, have moods. You know this intuitively even if you didn’t know it had a name: the difference between I write, I might write, and to write lies in the mood.
And when you write, you exist in the indicative mood. Creative doings are untempered action, after all: you draft and you plan and you put words on paper and you revise and you proofread. And then, you submit. And everything goes subjunctive.
For those of you whose hobbies are gerunds like “bicycling” and not abstract nouns like “grammar,” a quick refresher. Wikipedia, that Official Transcription of the Collective Unconscious, says that “subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred.”
Various states of unreality. Also known as the stretch of days between when you abandon your wonky little bundle of words on a doorstep and when you hear that someone’s adopted it. Or the time it takes for your void-shouting to echo. Or the haze of wishes and hopes that clogs up your ability to make declarative sentences. You say things like this:
Someone might like this.
If only my book were less weird!
Please let other people think this is readable.
I wish/hope/pray that this doesn’t suck.
This shouldn’t be so hard.
All subjunctive. All moody.
“It might have been” may be the saddest words of tongue or pen, but trim the phrase to its present tense and you have the most flirtatious: “It might.”
The subjunctive is wonderfully seductive like that. It’s the most human aspect of the most human form of word. What separates us from the animals if not “wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred”? What else is story if not a manifestation of those things? And where else do writers like to while away time if not in “various states of unreality”?
I think there’s a reason this aspect of action words shares its name with a synonym for emotion: verbal mood is mercurial, hard to grasp and harder to explain. (Even now, you are probably still scratching your head and wondering if this will be useful for Mad-Libs. It won’t, and I’m sorry for being stupidly obtuse.) Writers, being the agent nouns that they are, gotta write. It’s the only cure for what ails us—getting back to the indicative I write I tell I create—but how are we to make the transition? Thinking of ourselves in the future-tense-indicative might seem like the just the thing to rekindle the blaze in our bellies—I will write, I will succeed—but there’s a hollow, New Year’s resolution sound to those phrases. No, the necessary, block-breaking paradigm shift is of a much more imperative mood.
Literally. Get out your exclamation marks, get rid of your moodiness, and get ready.
Sit down! Type letters! Make words! String sentences! Print pages, scribble on scraps, keep creating! Do not stop! Do not despair! Do not dwell in possibility! Do not gentle go into that good night! Make your mark! Plumb depths! Exhaust everything! Revise! Wrestle! Struggle! Go, go, go!