A Teacher Gave Me

A GENTLE DRESSING DOWN for writing in the present tense. Not nearly as virulent, I must say, as those I count as idiots sounding off in their spendid vaccums who question the intelligence, perspicacity, ancestry, and hygiene habits of anyone who dared to do so. But enough to give me pause. After all, I chose to listen to this teacher for the wisdom on the subject of writing I hoped to imbibe. But part of being an artist, I have learned in my career as one, is having the arrogance to think yourself better than everybody around you, and to know your way is right, even when somebody you think wiser than yourself says you nay.

Me, I don’t see getting het up about the choices artists make. They are what they are, and in the end, merely matters of taste — not holy writ. I don’t much care for rap — scorn quotes — “music.” I was taught that music requires at minimum melody and rhythm. Rap seems almost to eschew melody even more than Johnny Mathis’ “Johnny One Note,” even though it has rhythm and aplenty. But there are any number of practitioners of the art I actually like, including — strangely enough — Eminem. The guitar riff from his Eight Mile is impresssive as all get out. After all, Chrysler’s ad agency thought enough of it to rip it off for their “Imported from Detroit” commercials. And the spoken word has a long tradition in bardic/troubadourian performance history. So, who am I to criticize those who roll a little anger at perceived oppression and injustice into their work. It seems clear they are working at it and not just fronting. De gustibus and all that.

I’m not a big fan of interstitial poetry in novels, either. Standalone, fine. The pop song as poetry — outstanding. I greatly admire Paul Simon and Justin Hayward to name but two from a long list. I just have a problem with a hero bursting into song like George M. Cohan as they paddle down the river. I skipped most of the poetry in Lord of the Rings for example. So I’m going to call Prof. Tolkien an idiot for including it in his magnum opus? How silly of me if I did. Especially since I, hypocrite I, have a recurring theme and meme in Geppetto’s Log in which the characters keep quoting Joni Mitchell’s “Carey.” Go figure.

Some of the same people (although — I’m glad to say — not my teacher mentioned above) who object to the present tense also object to prologues and preludes, which strikes me as errant silliness. It’s as though the packaging of an item should determine its suitability to its task. The cardboard strap used to hang a hammer in the hardware store’s pegboarded display is a just determinant of whether you ought to buy the thing. Just… silly. After all, what is a prologue but a chapter under a different name? A rose by any other name…?

Speaking in the present tense is not blasphemy. It’s not forbidden by God, or even Gotama. It’s a choice an artist makes. To me, resistance to it out of hand is … well, slightly north of silly. Try it. See if the work can sustain the unusual methods. It is, after all, the artist’s task to muster not only his subject matter, but his medium, and technique and meld them into a whole work. Give him the benefit of the doubt and partake of the work in toto first. After all, is it really any more distracting than a tale told in the first person? Unusual, perhaps. But do we not seek out novelty for that reason alone — that we want something unusual?

When I was first composing Geppetto’s Log, back in the early Oughts, Greg Bear’s Slant came out in mass market paperback. It is, as should surprise no one, written in the present tense. I took it as a sign from the publishing gods that at least some of them didn’t object to the present tense for telling tales as did some of my compatriots on the Online Writers’ Workshop. All that said, I ask you, my loyal readers: what do you think? Especially those who’ve beta’d on Geppetto’s Log or Armed Citizen.

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