I came across a phrase that I hadn’t heard before. It was uttered by guitarist Joe Satriani, who was crediting a former guitar teacher of his with discouraging him from “living in the subjunctive mode”. I had to look it up.
The subjunctive mode (or mood) is something that comes to us from the study of English grammar. It describes speech patterns of wishful thinking, in the sense of “wishing I were a famous artist”, for example. It’s that state of mind where you think things would be different, if only things had been different. The subjunctive mode is all about the expression of a hypothetical, wishful or imaginary thought.
In the modern dialect, subjunctive mode is often summarised by the phrase, “Shoulda, coulda, woulda”. There is no point focusing on the past (which cannot be changed) while providing no solution to a present problem.
The subjunctive mode is wistful as well as wishful, but also dismissive of possibilities that might actually be realisable. If you say you wish you were a famous artist, it passivates you. You are implicitly saying that you are not now a famous artist and probably never will be one. Well why not? Are you using the subjunctive mode as a reason to never strive to become one?
The subjunctive mode is essentially a linguistic method of offering barriers and excuses. It’s a way of saying that the ideal imagined has not been met, because the conditions casually asserted as being necessary for that ideal to come into being have not been met either. No responsibility is taken for the outcome or the starting conditions. It’s all in the lap of the Gods, as it were, or subject to the hand of fate.
Living your life in the subjunctive mode refers to the habit of wishing things were different, but doing nothing about making them so. The time and energy spent imagining a better future could be better used actually creating a future you imagine. Why live in virtual reality, when you can participate in actual reality? Phrases cast in the subjunctive mode refer to action that has not occurred yet. An alternative to living in the subjunctive mode, then, is to take that action, immediately and consistently.
As a musician, avoid the suburban disease of worrying about what you should, would or could have played, while never playing the music you want to play. Your job is to play your music, not to decide whether or not people should or will like what you play. So play your bloody music.
The same applies to all forms of art. The doing is much more important than musing about how good it would be, if only it had been done. There should be no latent regret in a lifetime spent in art. If you spent your time actually getting on with it, then who could ask for more? If, on the other hand, you spent a lot of the time you had dreaming about a result you were not prepared to put the work in to create, that truly is regrettable. It’s a lost opportunity. Clearly, you knew enough about the art to dream it up, but you didn’t apply what you knew to making it real. It was all just a dream you had and one that was never reached.
So, discouraging yourself and others from living in a permanent subjunctive mode seems to be pretty good advice, to me. Get on with it, instead.