Monday, July 6, 2015

Defining Complex Human Emotions

It's Dan writing today, and I wanted to tackle the complexity of human emotions and life in general. In particular, how to recreate some of the deep, powerful feelings that we have at certain moments when it's hard to put words to them. Recently, I stumbled across a wonderful and entertaining resource called The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a compendium of rare but widely-understood emotions described in lovely depressing form. For example:
n. the frustration of photographing something amazing when thousands of identical photos already exist—the same sunset, the same waterfall, the same curve of a hip, the same closeup of an eye—which can turn a unique subject into something hollow and pulpy and cheap, like a mass-produced piece of furniture you happen to have assembled yourself.
I read that and just thought yes, I've had that. It is not an easy thing to describe, but the author of this dictionary somehow nails it. I started perusing the site and found there are over a hundred entries like this. The words themselves are made up, but the feelings are not. Here some of my favorites:
n. the desire to be struck by disaster—to survive a plane crash, to lose everything in a fire, to plunge over a waterfall—which would put a kink in the smooth arc of your life, and forge it into something hardened and flexible and sharp, not just a stiff prefabricated beam that barely covers the gap between one end of your life and the other.

n. the awareness of the smallness of your perspective, by which you couldn’t possibly draw any meaningful conclusions at all, about the world or the past or the complexities of culture, because although your life is an epic and unrepeatable anecdote, it still only has a sample size of one, and may end up being the control for a much wilder experiment happening in the next room.

n. the ambiguous intensity of looking someone in the eye, which can feel simultaneously invasive and vulnerable—their pupils glittering, bottomless and opaque—as if you were peering through a hole in the door of a house, able to tell that there’s someone standing there, but unable to tell if you’re looking in or looking out.

n. the strange wistfulness of used bookstores, which are somehow infused with the passage of time—filled with thousands of old books you’ll never have time to read, each of which is itself locked in its own era, bound and dated and papered over like an old room the author abandoned years ago, a hidden annex littered with thoughts left just as they were on the day they were captured.

dead reckoning
n. to find yourself bothered by someone’s death more than you would have expected, as if you assumed they would always be part of the landscape, like a lighthouse you could pass by for years until the night it suddenly goes dark, leaving you with one less landmark to navigate by—still able to find your bearings, but feeling all that much more adrift.

n. a moment of awareness that someone you’ve known for years still has a private and mysterious inner life, and somewhere in the hallways of their personality is a door locked from the inside, a stairway leading to a wing of the house that you’ve never fully explored—an unfinished attic that will remain maddeningly unknowable to you, because ultimately neither of you has a map, or a master key, or any way of knowing exactly where you stand.

n. frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone—spending the first few weeks chatting in their psychological entryway, with each subsequent conversation like entering a different anteroom, each a little closer to the center of the house—wishing instead that you could start there and work your way out, exchanging your deepest secrets first, before easing into casualness, until you’ve built up enough mystery over the years to ask them where they’re from, and what they do for a living.

What I admire about this dictionary is that the author gives us a simile for each term that's usually as hilarious as it is descriptive. It leads me to two questions that I'd like you to answer:

  1. What are your favorite obscure sorrows? Bonus points if you make one up.
  2. How do you go about trying to write such complex feelings into your fiction?
Go forth and be sorrowful!

Caitlin: Perhaps this sounds weird, but I don't find these depressing. Instead, when I first read some, I actually felt a bit of a weight off  of me. It's a really nice reminder that I'm not alone in some of my weirder feelings. :) Meaning, it helps ease my monachopsis. But, I'd also like to add, that as writers, we need to stare vemodalen, the fear that everything has already been done before, straight in the eye (and bring on that opia feeling). It can be a really depressing feeling until you, well, just accept it. A writing teacher told me once that everything had already been done, so that's never a reason not to do something. It's actually kind of freeing if you think about it that way. Just write what you want to write, knowing it's unlikely to be a truly, earth-shatteringly new idea. And that's okay.

Lisa: I love this! So, I might sound insane and like I need to knock on 50 tons of wood for saying this but what about lachesism, n. the desire to be struck by disaster? Not that I want something horrific and terrible to happen to me. But there are times that I sit and think: I'd like to totally change my life, new career, move to a new town, get new friends/coworkers/car/pet. Even live in a different country. But I'm too scared. To do something like that I'd have to be forced and a disaster would do that. As far as writing lachesism, that's what I did in my book that'll be out this month TRICOLOR. I wanted to make a character make an entirely new life for herself. Though, I don't think I wrote it in the spirit of the above definition. My character didn't want that big change...or maybe subconsciously she did. How did I write it? Kicking and screaming. When a character doesn't want something like this, that's what they do. Kicking and screaming makes for great drama :)g

Karlie: Lisa. Yes!! I've had that same thought before.


  1. Fun post! I especially liked gnossienne. When my daughter was two, we had a babysitter who used to take her on errands. I'll never forget the time we were walking in town and strangers (to me) spoke to her and she to them. She was only two and had her own private life.

    My favorite obscure sorrow has a German word: Fernweh. It is the opposite of being homesick (Heimweh). Fernweh is literally "farsick", the desperate yearning to go somewhere far away.

  2. Suffering my own self-indulgent bout of occhiolism, I'd like to offer up:
    parendolor: (n) The awareness of one's dwindling influence on one's progeny, whether biological, societal, or encyclical--that the foundational stones of the past, honed and polished and passed through generations upon generation as their greatest treasure are, before our eyes, melting into smoke and mist. (Gosh, now I feel old, thanks.)