“The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.”—Friedrich Nietzsche
I was recently working as a volunteer in our little neighborhood library, and a patron struck up a conversation which came around to my occupation. She was evidently a voracious reader, which I think explains her interest and curiosity about my life as a writer. Since we were both book lovers and surrounded by books, we quickly found rapport. Which may explain why, rather minimalizing and changing the subject as I usually do, I sought to earnestly answer her queries. When I revealed that I’d been at it for over a decade, that I was working on what is essentially my fifth full manuscript, and that I was still—as yet—unpublished, her eyes widened. “You’re very patient,” she said. “That’s admirable in this day and age.”
I was flattered, and taken aback. I wished my parents were still around to hear it. I’ve been told I am impatient for as long as I can remember. I think I internalized the notion, so I was struck by the compliment. I’ve thought of it often since.
I’ve considered my resolve during this long haul toward publication to be due to a lot of things—my stubbornness, fastidiousness, my being methodical, etcetera—but patience hadn’t really occurred to me. Heck, I even wrote a post for WU called Embracing Perseverance , and never once mentioned the word patience.
Which led me to consider gratitude. Because, sure, I am grateful for the compliment. But it goes deeper. Allow me to explain.
The Anatomy of Patience
I think the timing had a lot to do with it. You see, I’d just attended Don Maass’s workshop, The Emotional Craft of Fiction. One of the coolest techniques I learned about is called “third level emotions.” Rather than naming a big emotion, a writer can better convey a character’s feelings by exploring her ancillary feelings. Don asked us to pick a scene where our character feels strongly (anger, sorrow, terror, etc.), then to ask ourselves what else she is feeling, and to note it. Then to ask again, what third thing is she feeling? We then wrote a new passage for the scene which describes this third-level emotion. It’s amazing how revealing the technique can be.
And though I don’t regularly think of myself as a character in my own story, I happened upon the notion of exploring my feelings about the patience compliment with Don’s technique. I started with impatience, just because it felt easier, or maybe more natural. After all, I do often feel impatient about my writing journey. So I thought about what else I’m feeling when I feel impatient. The first thing that popped into my head was anxious. It didn’t take long to see that my anxiety is rooted in fear. As in, “What if it never sells? What if it’s never good enough? What if I’m not good enough?”
Enlightened by that, I moved on to the third level. The next thing that came to mind was guilt. Does that seem odd? For me it makes perfect sense. With fear leading me to dwell on the possibilities of failure, guilt is a natural byproduct of failure. As in, “This is self-indulgent. I’ve wasted all of these years. Years I could’ve been doing something altruistic, or at least constructive. Years that my wife diligently supported my dream. Years that I could’ve been contributing to our financial wellbeing.”
See how our feelings fuel one another? And how much our subordinate feelings reveal about our primary emotions?
Having bummed myself out, I moved on to patience. Because since receiving the compliment, I’ve actually come to accept that somehow, someway, I have indeed gained patience with age. So I settled into the concept, and considered what else I was feeling. I came upon a sort of stoic resolve—almost a certitude. There is a part of me (admittedly a much more rational one than the anxious and guilty part) that is sure I will be published, that I will find a readership, and that I will make a career out of what I deem to be my true calling. I can see in looking back that I’ve already climbed so many of the necessary rungs, and that the way ahead is clear. I have but to continue to steadily climb.
You’ve probably already guessed the third-level emotion that sprang to mind from my certitude. Yep, it’s gratitude. I thought of the people who believe in me. I thought of how the awareness of my progress—the certitude that feeds my patience—is fortified by their belief. I thought of the encouragement and support of generous and wise mentors. I thought of how I’d never have come this far without having stumbled across WU; of all of the friendship I’ve found in this writing community; and of the gift of the guidance and constructive critique I’ve received along the way. I thought of how I will never be able to fully express to my wife how grateful I am for her support, insight, and companionship throughout this journey. But then I realized that she already knows.
The exercise left me feeling pretty damn good. And inspired to get back to work. Turns out delving for that third-level emotion was a pretty special reminder.
“Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all of the others.”—Marcus Tullius Cicero
It’s funny how infrequently I examine the positive forces that surround me. I mean, I’m always analyzing and scolding myself over the negative ones. Why am I so tired? Why is my word count down? Shouldn’t I have figured out this manuscript’s resolution by now? Shouldn’t I have written more by now? Shouldn’t I have read more? Walked more? Eaten less? And on and on.
Thinking about my patience has been empowering. It’s evoked a certitude I rarely acknowledge, even to myself. But more importantly, it’s reminded me of the power of gratitude. And the more I dwelled on my gratitude, the more I saw that Cicero was right—it’s the parent of so many other positive forces.
Gratitude cements my determination, and builds my confidence.
Gratitude inspires kindness by awakening my desire to pass along the gifts I’ve received.
Gratitude hones my purpose, and reinforces my courage.
Gratitude renews my passion, and strengthens my love.
As a writer, I am fortified by gratitude. Pretty amazing for a third-level emotion born of a surprising compliment from a stranger, don’t you think? I’m grateful for the chance to share it. And I’m very grateful that you read WU today. Please absorb it and feel free to pass it along.
What writerly compliments have you received that surprised you? What powerful emotion have you experienced lately, and what ancillary/third-level emotions came of it? What are you grateful for today? What other personal virtues does your gratitude fortify?
Image: Enough is a Feast, by Irudayam @Flickr