One of the first extended efforts in features writing I did on the way to journalism, many years ago, included an effort to describe the peculiar sensation of the holidays.
Across a lot of articles, I worked on issues around color and light; the seasonal commonality of a greeting (“happy holidays” as a unifying exchange phrase); and–inescapably–the magical realism of much of the scriptural literature, and of the “Christmas industry” that it has spawned, of course.
What was striking during all this–and I couldn’t let it filter into these pieces at the time–was the negative layer of disappointment that underlay so many aspects of all this.
The readings and interviews I was doing inevitably had something along the lines of, “Of course, that’s where the sadness always comes in.” Even among the happiest of yuletide Christian celebrants (and clergy) I encountered, there was a baked-in anticipation and expectation of a letdown. Many spoke without prompting of the “post-holiday blues.”
I found this frustrating. To me, the idea of life after the holidays being in various ways less cheerful was a given, and not where any emphasis was needed. There’s the return to work, the cold and darkness in many parts of the world, the quiet disappearance of the colorful light and trees.
But many years later, I’d find a short line that I think gets at what’s behind the cycle of emotional experience around the holidays. I’m adding the feminine to it because I hope its author would have wanted to do that if he were alive today.
Every man and woman regards his or her life as the New Year’s Eve of time.
Isn’t that a remarkable observation? Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, a writer in 18th-century Germany, was known as “Jean Paul.” He’d taken the name in honor of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. It’s said that he was too given to humor, satire, irony, and realism at times to be a full-blown Romantic. It’s also said that he was appreciated by women readers more than most authors of the era because he gave female characters a rare level of personality complexity.
His idea of how we think of our lives is exhilarating in the oddest way, and it relates, I’ve realized, to some of the literary work I respect the most. That’s where my provocation for you lies today. It has to do with what Writer Unboxed founder Therese Walsh has called “actionable epiphanies” in a comment below, a brilliant phrase I’ve updated this article here to include.
The Opportunities You Crave
I love what Jean Paul is proposing as the basic naïveté inherent in how each of us sees our own arrival in life. I don’t read this line as a negative, but as what likely makes progress occur: those of us able to hang on to the idea of our own specialness inherent in “the New Year’s Eve of time” are likeliest to make the most difference in the world.
But even more compelling here is the idea of an expectation-driven context for life. Anticipation is essential. This is about watching for something. And if used to define how a man or woman sees him- or herself in the world, I like how it throws that watchful expectation back onto each of us.
This is a way of talking about responsibility as well as joyous beginnings. As writers, we’re each the advent not only of our own consciousness but also the bearers of our responsibility to have some effect, some impact–to be that dazzling image of “the New Year’s Eve of time” that might change all that follows.
When I read This Life or the Next (AmazonCrossing, 2018), Tanya Thrasher’s translation of the Norwegian writer Demian Vitanza’s novel, for my interview with the author last week, I realized that Vitanza had captured this concept in the way his imprisoned former radicalized jihadist talks of his experience.
The book has unmistakable echoes of Capote’s In Cold Blood, though its technique of direct address (by the jihadist) is far more effective than Capote’s approach. What you come to understand is that we’re looking at a personality who believed that “in this life or the next” something spectacular was within his reach. And what makes the book live in your mind is the actual mundanity of what Tariq, in reality, found: boredom, confusion, weirdness, terrorism, regret.
On reflection, I realize that this element of characterization–great expectations, right?–is incredibly powerful in so much of the literature I admire most. And inevitably, what’s just below the surface is the idea of opportunity. We, and so many of the best characters we meet in books, are looking for opportunities and resources, resources and opportunities.
The more crowded the market, the more precious the opportunities. The more precious the opportunities, the more resources we need to capitalize on them.
Tell me what opportunity you need most in your writing life in 2019. How do you identify your own personal breakthrough, the place you need to reach? What resources do you need to leverage what comes your way? What would make your life what you once felt it was, what we all know our lives and careers could be, “the New Year’s Eve of time”?
I’m wishing you the opportunities you crave and the resources you deserve in the new year that lies ahead.
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