Thursday, September 23, 2010

Guacamole in the first person present tense.

I like to cook.

I like to cook a lot of things, from old family recipes I know by heart to really intricate recipes I find in my Food & Wine magazine. My favorite, though, is Mexican, and my favorite Mexican thing to make is guacamole. If you've ever eaten over, you've had my guac. I make it at least once a week. God, just thinking about it makes me drool a little. And I made some the day before yesterday, so it's not like it's been a while.

The first time I had really great guacamole was at a upscale Mexican restaurant, where they made it to order, table-side. It was pretty awesome to watch, as our waiter added all the ingredients, pre-measured in small bowls, into a large mortar and pestle and mixed it all up into this beautiful green delicious mess. It was so absolutely amazing that I wanted to eat it again the very next day, but I had no memory of what all he put in so I just bought some from the store. It was horrible, of course. Nothing packaged is as good as homemade. So I looked up a bunch of recipes and got a basic idea of what goes in guacamole, then gave it a whirl.

My first couple attempts weren't bad, and each time I made guac I had a little better idea of what I was looking for. And each time I make it, it's different, depending on my mood or what I'm serving alongside. (For the record, and in case you were wondering, I do avocados, red onion, cilantro, sea salt, serrano, and lime juice. Sometimes garlic. All chopped course- I hate avocado puree.) I know not everyone loves guacamole, and not all those who love it will think mine's the bees knees. I'm certainly not going to stop making guacamole because of that- just because it's not your thing doesn't mean it's bad.

There's been a lot of talk about present tense in contemporary fiction, mostly because of a email quote from Philip Pullman to the Daily Telegraph. (BTW, he wrote a response in the Guardian UK that explains with more depth.) Whatever. Agree or disagree. I really had little reaction to it all because, although I enjoy Pullman's books, his opinion on tense has no bearing on my writing. Until today, when I saw a retweet from a lit agent intern that claimed "1st person present tense is a privilege, not a right. To earn that right: 1st land big book deals & sales numbers"

Wait, what?

This is wrong on so many levels. Okay, first, writing creatively is not a some kind of privilege that is handed down from the GODS OF WRITING. To stipulate that I have to write in a specific tense, or that I have to write in a specific form, is taking away my ownership of my writing. It's akin to telling me my story has to be written in iambic pentameter. That's not how I write, and you don't get to decide for me. And to earn the right to write a certain way by selling? Elitist. Plain and simple.

Second, I'm bothered that this kind of advice is being read, retweeted, taken to heart by many writers, who think this is Gospel. Listen, you write what you write. You choose your characters, your plot, your perspective, your language, your tense. You do this because it fits with your vision. The work could be beautiful, just okay, or it could totally suck. But don't make your choices based on someone else's formula. That's called Mad Libs. Great fun while your drunk, but not anything truly original.

You may guess that I have something at stake with this topic, hence the hot and bothered. You're right. ABOVE THE WAVES is written in first person present tense (FPPT). It didn't start out that way. My first two manuscripts were written in first person past tense and I started ATW this way as well. It never occurred to me not to. Then maybe a third through, I wrote a scene in FPPT without even thinking about it. I didn't even notice I'd done it until the next day, reading through. At the time, I was surprised because, I'll admit, I'm not a super huge fan of FPPT. I've seen it really work and I've seen it as a distraction. But this scene did really work for me, and I spent the next two days experimenting in my text with FPPT. I realized that it was right for what I was trying to do with my MS, and it totally sucked because I had to go back and revise the whole freaking thing, which took literally days. And I am not an edit-as-you-go kind of writer, so this drove me crazy. But I emphasize, IT WAS THE RIGHT TENSE FOR WHAT I WAS TRYING TO DO WITH THIS MANUSCRIPT.

I am not previously published. No three-book deal with some majorly huge publishing house. Hell, I don't even have an agent. But to tell me, or anyone else for that matter, that I can't use FPPT because of those things is like telling me I can't make guacamole because I'm not Rick Bayless. Sorry. You're just wrong.

Listening to: The Smiths


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