To Be or Not To Be When Writing and a little bit about Bode

In Random Posts, Uncategorized, Writing - Understanding Style and Technique on February 22, 2010 at 12:46 am

Last time I discussed how verbs show without telling.  It ties in a little with these ongoing 2010 Olympic Games.  Athletes can tell the world how great they are in their sport, how they’re going to win, but emotion and support of fans isn’t generated from what they say, but what they do.  And the best place to show the world their sport and ranking is at the Olympic Games.

I love the Olympics.  When they’re on I don’t sleep much so I won’t miss much.  I watch the skating but as other sports play out I can’t look away.  There’s a lot to learn watching an unfamiliar sport.  Especially getting to know the players.

Before the 2006 Torino Winter Games I’d never heard of Bode Miller.  Leading up to the games I couldn’t turn on a television without seeing a commercial hyping this guy.  Including an in-your-face campaign to follow Miller online at joinbrody.com.  I was sick of him before he strapped on skis for the practice run.  That was a mild reaction compared to the complete revulsion I felt for him as the Games progressed.  Unbecoming conduct, lack of respect for the game, a complete disconnect from athletic spirit – he was a Jerry Springer episode on skis.

For the first time I willed an Olympic athlete to fail.  I wanted that arrogant fool to fall.  And fall he did.  Spilling over like foam of a Miller Lite.  I clapped with glee.  It seemed appropriate the great mountain of Turin shook him off its back like an oxen flexes at a fly.  Bode Miller’s wild and reckless run ended with a slide on his backside to the soft snow of the sidelines.

When I saw that he qualified for the 2010 Vancouver Games I “ugh”ed displeasure.  I’ll say it again.  ugh.  But the buzz was he’d been skiing a good season with podium results.  Commentators said he’d changed.  yeah, right.  There’s that hype again.  No thank you.

Then began the 2010 Winter Games and Bode Miller slid his way to Bronze.  I was ready to scoff at his victory speech.  But he didn’t boast.  He explained.

“I sort of feel like I relaxed a bunch of my animosity toward the commercialism of the Olympics from last time.”

huh.  I understood what he meant and sympathized with it.  Next thing you know we’ll been seeing fast food chain McDonald’s as a sponsor promoting their food as a healthy option for Olympians.  Oh, wait.  That did happen.

And my dislike for him thawed.  He was only a guy trying to stay true to the heart of skiing.  And McDonald’s was not his first hearth-healthy choice.

In that interview, and several following, Body Miller talked of transition.  What had changed?  Of course he discussed the obvious, that he’d matured and how becoming a father had altered his focus.

Also, he said, that throughout his career he’d been flying downhill fueled on feeling.  Man against mountain.  That he hadn’t skied for himself in Torino.  Instead he felt he’d been forced to ski for the big money sponsors and the experience left him cold, which is exactly where he ended up in the medal runs, out in the cold.

So, in the aftermath, Bode had to dig deep and decide what to do.  Give up or regain passion for the sport?  His answer was to go back the heart of his skiing and do it on his terms, for himself.  But skiing by emotion only is, at best, a pure adrenaline rush.  A total on-the-seat-of-your-pants ride.  He knew it was a reckless, unreliable method with uncontrolled results.  And to be recognized in the sport, especially in an Olympic year, he had to find a way to tame the wildness of the ride by working out the mechanics of it.  He had to incorporate technique into the purity of his ski run.

So, that brings me back to the question of this piece, To Be or Not To Be?

Bode had to find a way To Be in a way that accomplished his Olympic dream, even if it meant mixing passion with the drudgery of technique or else it was Not To Be.

It’s the same in writing.  We can speed down that hill in an adrenaline rush and write on pure emotion.  But the ride is not our own.  Readers are on that hill with us.  To make a successful writing run we can’t shut them out of the experience.

To do that successfully, we need to go the Bode way and mix our passion for writing with technique.  But, unlike Bode, we don’t want To Be when writing.  Verbs, I mean.  We don’t want To Be verbs in our writing.  They are like obstacles on the hill, stopping readers in their tracks.

Let’s talk time for a minute.

To create the reality of time in writing we use three basic verb tenses.  Present (exists now), Past (started and finished in the past), Future (action or situation that will occur in the future).

There are elements to these tenses used to indicate when the action or event occurs in relation to other events.  One is Simple (the time of focus) as in Simple Present, Simple Past, and Simple Future.

I sit on my couch every day.

I watched the Olympics last night.

I will walk to the refrigerator as soon as a commercial airs.

Another is Progressive (ongoing action) as in Present Progressive, Past Progressive and Future Progressive.  Be + -ing (present participle) forms the Progressive Tense.  It’s used to indicate an action is in progress during a particular time.  The elements of the tense portray when an action ‘begins before’, is ‘in progress during’ and ‘continues after’ another time or action.

Bode is skiing right now.

He was dropping to seventh when I turned on the television.

He will be kicking himself later.

And the final one is Perfect (completed action) as in Present Perfect, Past Perfect and Future Perfect.  Have + -ed form the Perfect Tense.  It’s used to portray an action ‘completed in the past before another action’, that ‘one thing happens before another time or event’.

I have already seen the results.

I had already seen the results online before I turned on the television.

I will already have seen the results when my friends arrive.

Head spinning yet?  There’s also Perfect Progressive (ongoing action that will be completed at some definite time) but I will write more about it next time and how verb forms are used to create tenses.

What you need to know right now are the basic To Be verb forms.  These are the ones to watch out for when writing.  Train yourself to avoid them whenever possible:

Simple Present:

I am

You are

He, she, it is

We, you , they are

Simple Past:

I was

You were

He, she, it was

We, you , they were

Present Perfect:

I have been

You have been

He, she, it has been

We, you, they have been

The base form of the verb is be, the past participle is been and the –ing form is being.

I’ll be here next weekend.

I have been happy.

I am being productive today.

So, you ask, why is this seemingly simple verb to be avoided?

It describes existence only, a static state.  It just ‘is’, nothing happens when you To Be in writing, the story stands still and readers wait as nothing happens, they wait for the story to continue so they can get moving again down the mountain.

It’s like writing, ‘Bode is unhappy today’.  What does it tell readers?  That he is unhappy.   Instead of writing that he is unhappy, a state of existence, why not write about the specific behavior that reveals he’s unhappy and hint at what action is to come.

‘Bode clipped the flag with the edge of ski on the fourth turn, forcing him off course and out of medal contention.  At the bottom of the hill he slammed his ski against the barrier and swore he’d return.’

And before I leave, I’m sure you are wondering, did I cheer for Bode this time as I watched the U.S. team’s Olympic runs?  Yes, I cheered him on.  I think we both grew up a little during these Olympic Games.

NEXT TIME: Activating the Tenses


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