Writing

Tamara Ellis Smith on the Sense and Struggle of Longing

Tamara Ellis Smith/Photo courtesy of the author

Editor's Note:

Tamara Ellis Smith earned her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Richmond, Vermont, with her family. Another Kind of Hurricane is her first novel. For Signature’s Under the Influence series, in which authors reflect on their literary influences, Tamara ponders longing and how it can overtake us until we set it aside.

In April 2013, two of my running partners and I went to Jericho Research Forest. This is a huge forest managed by the University of Vermont. It has dozens of trails that weave in and out of designated research areas, up mountains and along streams. I lived right on its edge when I first moved back to Vermont in 1999 and spent hundreds of hours inside it.

“I know these trails like the back of my hand,” I told my friends as we set out for our Sunday run.

But I hadn’t been in the forest in a long time, and it had changed. New trails had been cut. Others had overgrown. And I got us lost. Very lost. We ended up – after many hours bushwhacking in various directions – on a road far from where we had started. It shouldn’t have been a big deal. All I needed to do was make a quick phone call to my husband, and he would be there to drive us back to my car. But as we pushed our way through the last tangle of tree branches, I lost it. I mean lost it. Tears streamed down my face. I could barely breathe. My body shook. My voice was hiccupy and high as I apologized to my friends.

“I’m sorry,” I wailed. “I thought I knew where I was–”

An overreaction to be sure.

Except … at that time, I was two years into the process of adopting a child (who would become the son we now have), and I was five years into the process of writing, revising, and trying to sell a novel (which would become Another Kind of Hurricane).

These two processes – adopting my son and selling my novel – were the things I longed for most in my whole life. I had never worked so hard for anything, ever. And I had never experienced such a tough journey. A bunch of steps forward, then one back, being forced to let go, then being asked to double down and work hard again. A sense of intense longing had taken up residence inside me – somewhere near my heart, lodged against the curve in my ribs. I felt it in my heartbeat; I felt it when I breathed. My longing was thick like the vines that wind their way around trees. It was practically impenetrable.

I needed to know where I was in the Jericho Research Forest because I felt so deeply lost inside of that longing.

Once my friends helped me settle down, we talked about what was going on for me. And I realized that I had been doing two things with my longing: I was trying to transform it, turning it into jealousy (She got that, but I’m probably entitled to it more than she is, damn it) or denial (I never wanted that, and even if I did, which I didn’t by the way, but even if I did, I certainly don’t want it now). I was also allowing it to consume me (I feel this longing so badly and so deeply that I think, in fact, I AM this longing. Where are my hands and feet and heart and mind? They have been taken over by the body-snatching longing monster.).

But my friends asked me, their arms securely around my shoulders, “What about just letting it be?”

Later that day, one of them came over to my house and gave me this:

bed of longing

Picture of the actual bed of longing my friend Stef made for me.

A bed for my longing. She had made me a bed for my longing. A place to let it be.

And so, with the help of my friends, from that lost run I found something.

Longing is not a bad thing. It might not be the most comfortable feeling in the world (think a slightly too sharp object stuck under your rib), but if it is given a place to call home, longing smooths itself out, and is even kind of sweet-looking as it rests there. Longing is not a bad thing at all. It lets us know what matters in our lives. It points to our dreams. It reminds us that we have hearts and minds, and that they are beating and buzzing all the time. From that moment on – with some bumps along the way, of course – I laid my longing next to me as I filled out yet another government adoption form or rewrote another chapter of my novel.

Another Kind of Hurricane was sold about a year later, on April 3, 2014. Later that day, I got a phone call from our social worker, letting us know that the adoption committee wanted to match us with a child. My book sold on the same day I found out about our son. Two excruciatingly long processes in the soil, sun, and rain – and they flowered at exactly the same time.

The magic of those two journeys being so intertwined is a blog post for another day. But I will say this here: There is an essential quality to my son’s life right now; an authenticity buzzes through him. Maybe this is because he is, in a way, being reborn as he adapts to his new life with my family. And that newborn time is all about essence and core and what-you-see-is-what-you-get, right? And this – this essentialness – is what we strive for in our writing, isn’t it? The transparency and truthfulness of the human spirit that breaks open the hearts (and minds) of our readers. That inspires them – in even the smallest ways – to live fully inside themselves.

Longing is an essential thing too. And in the end, it turns out, it is something to embrace. Like the friends who run with you through the thickest forest. It is a guide, like they are. It is a light.

Jafeth and me

Picture of Jafeth and me at my book launch on July 15, 2015. Photo taken by Shem Roose/ shemroose.com

Read more from authors on influence here.