Sometimes people ask me why I write. This is a good question, and one I’ll probably spend my life trying to answer. I usually say it’s because when I’m writing I feel as though I’m doing what I am intended to do. I say I write because I’m saner when I do than when I don’t. That one usually gets a chortle, although people sometimes step off to a safer distance. Probably wise. Snort.
These answers, while true, are not the entire answer. There is something deeper, some driving force, gentle (mostly) but firm, some ever-present nudging, a kernel of yearning for . . . something . . . It’s difficult to name, which is even more frustrating, since you might say I’m in the naming business. Every once in a while, however, something pops up that gives me a clue.
This morning on Facebook someone posted a word — sehnsucht — with the definition “the inconsolable longing in the human heart for we know not what. A yearning for a far, familiar, non-earthly land one can identify as one’s home.”
Huh. So that’s what that feeling’s called. Don’t you love it when you find a word that so precisely describes something previously unnamed? Sehnsucht is German and means – roughly — “longing”, “yearning”, or “craving”,or in a wider sense a type of “intensely missing”.
This makes much sense to me as a writer since I believe what Robert Olen Butler said, that fiction is “the art form of human yearning.”
It means more, however, than merely craving something. Sehnsucht is difficult to translate adequately and describes, as so many of these German words do, a deep emotional state.
Sehnsucht is a concept representing what I’ve heard called “The God-Shaped Hole” at the center of our being, the thirst forever unquenched, the ideal dream forever unfulfilled.
I meet a lot of people who, like me, are trying to stay sober one day at a time, and we often talk about ourselves as being restless, irritable and discontent. But perhaps what we really are is filled with sehnsucht – a longing to return to a home we’ve never really known. Some call this God, maybe. I call it The Ineffable.
It is a longing of such depth and intensity that it’s inspired poets and writers and musicians for as long as the arts have been alive. Certainly it inspired, perhaps even drove C.S. Lewis. Consider this quote from The Problem With Pain, (NY Macmillan, 1938 145-148):
You have stood before some landscape, which seems to embody what you have been looking for all your life; . . All the things that have deeply possessed your soul have been but hints of it – tantalising glimpses, promises never quite fulfilled, echoes that died away just as they caught your ear. But if it should really become manifest – if there ever came an echo that did not die away but swelled into the sound itself – you would know it. Beyond all possibility of doubt you would say ‘Here at last is the thing I was made for.’ We cannot tell each other about it. It is the secret signature of each soul, the incommunicable and unappeasable want . . . which we shall still desire on our deathbeds . . . Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it – made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.
I dream a lot about houses (I think we all do) and they are generally under construction or renovation, and I’m moving in or moving out. I visit the same houses in my dreams over and over and am always, while dreaming, quite aware of how many times I’ve previously visited. The ones I love most are those with a sort of Bloomsbury quality to them — a little lived in, artistic; shabby enough so that one feels comfortable curling up on any chair, putting one’s feet on any table. There is lots of tea and books and lovely slightly-wild gardens and dogs and people I love. It is the idealized “home,” a dream not so much of architecture and decor as of soul-state.
Part of why I write is because I am prodded by that ache to approach the homecoming soul-state. It is, of course, impossible to achieve, at least in this life. But I believe that makes the journey no less vital, no less meaningful. I have a friend who is deeply religious; she says this is the same ache that prods her toward the God of her understanding — “That ache we feel for God’s presence,” she says, “is God.”
The writer learns to accept that the finished book will never live up to her original vision and yet she writes it anyway. Similarly, even though I may never have my sehnsucht fulfilled (at least outside occasional short-lived, sparkling, crystal flashes), still, it is the sort of absence the presence of which I find comforting. Like the blank space in front of every word I write, it is the home towards which my soul arcs.