When I’m starting to write a novel, there’s always a point at which everything feels like it’s in place, but I know it’s not. For some reason, the writing is completely inert. And that’s when I go around all day with a distracted air and mutter, usually to my boyfriend or girlfriend at the time, about how I haven’t yet captured “the emotional core” of the book.
Sometimes this phase lasts for weeks. Sometimes for months. And sometimes (in fact, usually) it never ends, and I’m never able to write that particular book.
This business of capturing the emotional core is a very difficult one. I’ve tried to systematize it and process it. I’ve tried to draw myself maps and flowcharts, like some sort of systems troubleshooter, to figure out how I can get close to the emotional core. And over the years I’ve learned a few things about it. I know that the emotional core of a book usually lies somewhere in the character’s backstory. It’s the thing in their life that pained them, and it’s the hurt that they need to heal.
And I know that the emotional core has something to do with longing.
People often say novels are about desire. But ever since reading this amazing blog post by Brandon Taylor (who I met at the 2015 Lambda Retreat!) I’ve been thinking about it differently. Desire feels too inert, somehow. Longing is different from desire. Longing is when you want something that barely seems possible–something that’s so integral, in your mind, to the good life, that it feels like you cannot live without it. And yet you know that there is a very good chance that your longing will forever go unfulfilled. That’s what drives novels. It’s not needs, because needs are so universal that they feel generic. It’s about the place in the soul where wants turn into needs.
All my favorite novels–Revolutionary Road, Main Street, Anna Karenina, House of Mirth, Mrs. Dalloway–are ones that take you deep into the heart of longing. And I’d like to think that my books do as well.
And yet even though I know so much about it, I’ve also found that the heart of longing is not an easy place to find. I’m not sure why this is. Sometimes when I am in the world, I feel that longing very intensely. I’ll look at a person or hear a song or a memory will bubble up from nowhere, and I’ll want with so much strength.
And sometimes I can write down that longing. That’s where Enter Title Here came from. All the terrible longing in that book is drawn directly from my own experience as a high school student who so desperately wanted to be respected by everybody around him.
But other times I can’t. I sit down to write and the longing vanishes. And that’s because you can’t transfer longing directly to the page. You need to create a container–a character and a story–that can hold it. This is not easy to do. You can spend all your time on the container, and then find that it’s not the right shape, and that the longing won’t fit.
I think sometimes about authors who are able to sit down and write book after book. It’s easy to dismiss them as hacks, and some of them are. It’s shocking how many authors will go to print with characters who are inert. But some–Steven King, Mercedes Lackey, Lois Bujold–are able to tap into the heart of longing again and again. I wonder how they do this. Is there a pathway that’s open inside them, so that the emotions are always there when they are summoned? Or have they learned how to do it mechanically, simply by plunking down the right combination of story elements (alienated childhood + mystical hero-dom = $$$).
I don’t know, but someday I hope to.