I threw a party when I sold my book, and my husband, Derek, surprised me at it by gathering everyone and giving an impromptu speech. It was sweet and teary, and he thanked my friends for all of their constant support and encouragement. But he also asked them, with a devilish look in his eye, did they know that we had been living with an extra member of the family for the last few years? Derek, me, our three kids (five chickens, two dogs, three cats) and…my longing. As though it was a living, breathing thing!
Ummmm….yeah. He was right. Not only had I been wrestling with my longing, but the rest of the family had too. Derek laughed and said he had to admit that, as much as he respected it, he was kind of ready to show it to the door and give it a shove. (We only have a queen bed, after all, and it’s kind of small…)
See that longing trying to get back in the house? (Illustration from Patrick Ness‘ A Monster Calls.)
Yeah, I got that. I felt the same way too. See ya later, longing. Ciao. Don’t let the door hit your big ole full-of-desire derrière on the way out.
Except, maybe not.
Because longing is a useful thing. And not just in those emotional and psychological realms that I explored in my last post – how longing lets you know what matters in your life, how it confirms your human status, and how it offers a point of connection with other people – but also in a very practical realm too. And so I thought it might be helpful to pull together 5 ways longing is a functional and sensible tool. Actually, after I thought about it for a bit, I realized that what I had come up with was more of a progression; steps that deepen both a sense of self and the work. So here is what I stumbled into, and I humbly offer it here:
1. Let longing be. Longing is one of those emotions that is so easy to transform into some other emotion, something more manageable, like self-pity or jealousy. Seriously, it is so much easier to spiral down the rabbit hole of I’m not good at anything, I’ll never succeed ever or lob an I want what she has so bad I can taste it in HER direction. But don’t. Sit with the feeling. Let it teach you to be still and present. It is stubborn, but you can be more stubborn. Let it teach you just how much courage and resilience you have.
2. Let sitting with longing become a practice. Then take it a step further. Like yoga, or running, or meditation, or whatever else you do on a regular basis, let being aware of your longing become something you connect with regularly. Watch it, touch it, be curious about it. Get to know it. You know that super cool thing that happens with rituals? The simultaneous subconscious quality it takes on, where you don’t have to even think about it anymore AND the insane eagle-eyed focus on details it allows? Let that happen with your longing.
3. Sit with other emotions too. Once you can sit with your longing, practice sitting with your other emotions too. Let that become a ritual too. The same cool thing will happen. Plus, a side benefit? You will reduce those times when you really wish you had thought for another minute before opening your mouth. (At least I have….ummm…anger management, anyone?!)
4. Sit with characters’ emotions. So this is where you segue your focus from self to work. The most amazing thing is that this progressive practice translates onto the page. Once you can sit with your own emotions, you can sit with your characters’ emotions too. This is big. At least for me, it was. I was finally able to – not just see, but – truly feel my characters’ emotions. Part of that was due to my developing skills at being still and present, and part of that was because I was becoming an emotion expert.
An added benefit of this practice? Much less Writer’s Block! Image from toonpool.com
5. Write deeper, more authentic characters. For me anyway, as I learn to stay present with what I am feeling, when I get to know, in my bones, the nuances and underbellies and depth and details (especially the details) of my own emotions, I can find the same landscape within my characters. And I can translate all of that into the tiny gestures and words and moments that make emotion come colorfully, wildly, passionately alive on the page. I can deeply know the arc that an emotion travels, and I can match my characters’ journey along that arc to specific plot moments in my story. For me, this was the difference between a very good story and one that felt…different.
Take this, or leave it. I am sure – absolutely sure – that for many of you this is old news. Or maybe something you do intuitively. But for me, it was an epiphany. (Or a series of epiphanies, really.) I was one of those kids (and then one of those teens, and then one of those young adults) that got things the first time around, academically, socially, emotionally. Everything was a quick learn; an instant success…except for those things that weren’t. But those things got put into an if I can’t succeed at this right this minute then it must be something I’m not supposed to do category. The process of facing that, and my fears around being my authentic self, is a subject for another post. But once I did, I had to learn how to make mistakes, try again, try a 100 more agains, and…face my longing.
And it’s not going away. Yes, I’ve sold my first book, so that particular longing has left me, and left the house. But, boy oh boy, there is more. So much more.
Sorry, Derek. Maybe we need to get a bigger bed.