In earlier posts I’ve written somewhat about the heart of longing, and I believe I might even have said that there’s no point in writing anything unless you begin with the heart of longing. This is the sort of thing that people often say: “There’s no point in writing unless you are (pure of heart / care only about the work / find that you can’t do anything else / etc / etc).” And people say this stuff even though they know it’s complete bullshit.
People don’t write because they’ve found some mystical, transcendent reason for writing. No, they usually begin writing because of vanity. It’s the same reason kids aspire to be actors or rock stars. Writing is a romantic occupation. People admire writers. Bookish kids, especially, tend to admire writers. And if you’re a bookish kid, you often want, more than anything, to be like the hero of a book. And since bookish kids are unlikely to grow up and slay dragons, they oftentimes decide that they want to be artistic heroes. They’d like to be Ray Bradbury slaving away at a rented typewriter in his library. They’d like to be a thin, ascetic J.R.R. Tolkien smoking a pipe and dreaming up entire languages. They want to Auntie Jane Austen, who sits at her escritoire in the parlor like all the other old maids, but who, unbeknownst even to her kin, is producing works that’ll last for two hundred years.
That is where the impulse to write comes from.
So given that you’re beginning totally backwards, not with any idea in mind or anything in particular to say, but only with the vague, unformed desire to live a bold and interesting life, how do you go about writing a book?
This is where so much writing advice breaks down, since much of it is given out by freaks. Yes, some minority of writers do blaze with a singular and unique vision even at an early age, and it’s these writers who tend to reap a disproportionate amount of success in the field and, hence, position themselves later as dispensers of advice.
And as for the rest of the advice-givers, I think the long years of failure in this field will often alter you in ways that it’s difficult to see and understand. We began, at age 14 or 18 or 22 or 25 or 45 with these romantic notions, but those ideas fade after awhile, because: a) we never achieve any success; b) whatever success we do achieve tends to be so unsatisfying that we find it difficult to believe we ever lusted after it; and c) we eventually discover our voices and, as the joys of success fade, we find that the joy we take in the writing tends to increase.
Thus we end up, in middle age, saying things like, “It’s not worth writing unless you start out with the heart of longing.” Because this is something that we, after twelve or fifteen years of striving, have learned on such an intuitive level that we’ve forgotten we ever felt differently.
So much nonsense has been written about finding your creativity. The real, honest truth is that everybody has to come by their creativity in their own way. There are some people who call up the muse with a snap of the fingers; they know exactly what they want to write, and they sit down and do it on command. And it’s these people who perpetuate the notion that writing is a craft. They’re the ones who say stuff like, “Writer’s block is a ridiculous notion. Writing is a job, just like being a plumber, and have you ever heard of plumbers getting plumber’s block?”
But the truth is, writing is not like being a plumber. Plumbers aren’t presented with a blank space and told, “Hey, do something with this! Maybe it ought to involve water and shitting? I don’t know. Be creative! But also make me feel something. Oh yeah, and it should preferably appeal to enough people that a major multinational corporation can make money off of it.”
Writing is about creation something from nothing. It’s a creative profession. And in every creative profession, people are at the mercy of their own imaginations. Sometimes that thing you need—the idea or the character or the setting or whatever—simply does not come.
Not being able to find the heart of longing is simply one possible way that a writer’s imagination can fail them. There are others, and many of these other failure states are much harder to remedy.
But right now I’m talking about the heart of longing. And I think that as writers, especially writers of genre fiction, we’re often a little bit scared to write from a place that’s very personal. For one thing, we might be afraid that our ‘very personal’ place is trite and that nobody will care about it. If you’re a white woman in your late twenties or early thirties who’s afraid of never finding love, for instance, then you might think, oh the world has enough of this, and nobody will want to read it. Nothing new can come from this. I ought to write a story about a soldier returning home from Iraq to a nation that’s forgotten him.
Or if you’re a geeky kid who grew up playing video games and watching sci-fi movies, then maybe you’re so accustomed to reading and watching narratives about people who’re very different from you (gun-toting space marines, for instance) that you’ve lost sight of the connection between that space marine, who seems to never feel any pain or misery, and your own longing to be a hero. When we read or watch something in order to be transported to somewhere new, we often purposefully obscure or turn away from the things within ourselves that are driving this desire to escape.
But I don’t think you can write a decent Star Wars or a Lord of the Rings or a Dune unless you’re in touch with exactly those things. Paradoxically, it’s only by delving deep within ourselves that we will be able to create works that allow other people to transcend their own fears.
Which is to say that in some ways finding the heart of longing isn’t an imaginative act at all. It’s the opposite. I think it’s about looking inside yourself and finding the places where longing stirs within you. What do you want? What are you afraid of losing?
And I don’t mean that you should articulate these desires. Anything that can be plainly explicated is useless as a source for fiction, because fiction is about those feelings that can’t be conveyed except through actions and images. What I’m saying is that if you want to find the heart of longing, you should observe yourself as you move through the world. Where do you experience longing? And not just desire: I’m talking about that bone-deep, painful longing. Where do you experience the feelings that you’re afraid to admit even to yourself?
Every writer has at least one longing, which is the desire to write a great book. But the longings I am talking about go so much deeper than that. The longing to write a great book is almost a paltry one, because it’s something that’s within your power. You can sit down, day after day, and try to write a book. But in your life, you contain desires that are already lost to you. I will never be a secret agent. I will never walk on Mars. I will never be Casanova. These things are not possible for me. And yet the desires remain inside me. If you can find those scarred places, then that’s where you’ll find the heart of longing.
Initially, these desires will only reveal themselves in the briefest glimpses. I mean you’ll feel a pang and then, quicker than you catch hold of it, the pang will be gone, and while you’ll be left with the memory of its passing, you won’t remember the feeling of it.
The effort to pin down these desires is a tough one. The temptation is to take the memory of the desire and try to write something immediately. But that won’t work; you’ll produce something that’s nothing more than a pastiche of other things you once loved.
What you need is to work to reproduce the desire itself. When you write, think about that desire, and whenever you write something that makes the desire flicker to life, then you should follow that trail until the desire dies down. Finally, after some time, it’s possible that you’ll hit upon a voice—not a first-person voice, necessarily, but a certain cadence and rhythm and set of words and images—that make this desire come to life more fully than it ever has before. And once you have that voice, you can begin to write your book.
In my experience the search for the heart of longing is never something that happens entirely behind the keyboard or computer screen. You can’t sit alone in a room and conjure up the heart of longing. If your hunt for the heart of longing takes place entirely behind the computer screen, you’ll end up producing a whisper of something that feels sort of right, and then saying to yourself, “Well that’s it. That’s the real thing.”
But if you occasionally go out into the world and experience the desire in its natural habitat, you’ll see that what you’ve made doesn’t really capture the real thing at all, and you’ll go back to work and produce something better.
And yet…most of the work does need to take place while you’re alone, struggling with the words. Because finding the heart of longing is only the start of the journey; the real work comes when we try to create something, on the page, that can arouse that longing within other people.