Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Saturday, January 30, 2016

On Longing

In the heart of every story, every character that I've ever loved is a hook. It tugs at me, pains me somewhat, leaves a scar when it goes.

It's longing. Not just desire, that hot, wet, vicious little monster with the teeth. Not the burning of ambition with its cold, mad stare. Longing has tenacity, and a penchant for the long game. It's patient. It might seem to leave for a while, but just when you feel like it's gone, like you're finally free, it reminds you - nope, still here. Miss me?

It comes in many forms, too. There's nostalgia, always a favorite of mine, a longing for an idealized past. The longing of love is a good one, too, that delicious heartache that always threatens to kill you, but never does. Religion has always given me that feeling, much to the chagrin of my more rational friends. God, or the thought of him, the love universal that sustains the stars in their courses and our cells burning with life. That longing hits me pretty hard.

The longing of stories, though, is more complicated. It's a particular mixture of the intention of the story and the reception of the reader. What might leave you moony and full of deep yearnings for days might leave me absolutely cold, or vice versa. 

The Muppet Movie, to pick what might seem like an odd example, is shot through with longing for me. Friendship, adventure, humble beginnings rising up to the heights of success, dreams, true love - when I was a kid, this was what I wanted my life to be about. It seems like a place where weirdos like me could find their space. I came out of that movie, a simple kid's movie, profoundly moved.

People can exploit that longing. A slogan like, "Make America Great Again" seems like a bunch of nonsense to anyone with even a modest grasp of history. We know that the "greatness" of America's past was partly built with racism and the wholesale extermination of native peoples. But the longing that makes that phrase resonate with so many people comes from a real place, a place of heartache and the deepest hungers of our souls. "Greatness" is, for many, not just domination, but a state of exaltation, an almost holy calling that combines strength with righteousness and a sense of responsibility. It comes from a place of love and hope. Others, manipulative and mendacious, will use this feeling, this longing, for their own purposes, which only further points out their evil.

Which is not to say we should foreswear longing, only that we should be wary of it. It is a powerful emotion, and like all things of power, should be treated with respect and caution.

For a long time, I tried to write with a sharp eye and a cool heart. There's a time for that, editing, for instance. But there's a saying: "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." I know I'm on the right track with something I'm writing when I get that old feeling, that feeling of falling in love, of missing a place I've never been. When I begin to ache for the world I've made, for the people in it and the mistakes I know they're going to make, that's when I know I've made something good.

The throat tightens. The chest opens. I wish for wings that I've never had. I want everyone to feel like I feel: this loving longing that might be the only thing that gives the world any meaning at all.

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