Listen To Your Longings

Just the blank ones. There's more part used.

Choose your tools carefully but not so carefully that you get uptight or spend more time at the stationery store than at your writing-table. Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down The Bones

Listen to your longings for they are trying to tell you something.

In the 1980s Stephen King was battling a drink, smoking, painkiller and cocaine addiction. As he tells it, his wife gathered concerned friends who searched the house and brought what they found to his study. There, on the carpet, they poured his beer cans, cigarette butts, cough and cold medicines plus various drug paraphernalia and confronted him with his habit.

I recently decided to confront one of my habits in the hope it might help you to find your inner compass.

Here goes. I have, gulp, an untreated stationery fetish which I’m not getting help for. It’s a very particular kind of habit and my drug of choice is an empty notebook. Earlier today I decided I could hide it no longer and, waiting until the family were out, unearthed all the empty notebooks I had hidden around the house and made a pile.

I knew it was bad but not this bad. And these are just the blank ones. Oops.

You might be wondering how this can help you. Fair enough. Here’s the thing. I’ve always had this obsession but never knew why. It’s taken me over 40 years to work out why and now I know, I figure my story might help you.

Because you have longings too. And they are pointing loud and clear. But you may not know it yet.

A Young Boy’s Obsession

So, let me tell you about my obsession, my longings, and lay out a trail of clues for you. See if you can work what they were pointing to before I did.

I’ve always loved notebooks. For me there is something mystical and sensuous about a notebook. They speak to me of power, answers to mysteries and arcane knowledge. Blame Disney and books of magic. Blame my parents and teachers for showing me how a book had the power to create new worlds and transport me away from my Dad’s cancer. Growing up, it was my brother who got all the creative ability (or so I thought), wood, metal and stone took shape under his hands while turning to landfill under mine. I was just someone who read all the time and what use was that?

I’ve always touched notebooks. I cannot pass a stationery store without going in, looking for the notebooks. I touch them, feeling their heft, examining the quality of the paper, the ruling. And I’m very particular, always looking for the flawless one and they must smell good too. Yes, I’m a book sniffer.

Since childhood I’ve wanted to own notebooks but I never knew why. On the odd times I’ve mentioned it or someone has noticed, it’s been a bit of a joke. Nobody spotted the obvious clue and neither did I. Have you yet?

As I got older, having money gave me a chance to explore my obsession and the internet led me to others, stationery nerds, in perpetual search for perfect combination of cover, paper and ruling. Bliss.

But like all habits it brought frustration too. I wanted them badly but they remained empty. I ached to own them and buying gave me a high but after they would sit there, mocking me. Why was I so driven to own them but not knowing what to do with them? By now I was hiding them around the house or in the car. There was the odd comment.

More clues

Distinguished at school by a lack of work, widely expected to fail exams, even by me, I managed to pull the words out and onto paper, doing a lot better than anyone predicted. Of course, I completely missed the significant skill I was using.

I have always read compulsively. I read all the time. I’m constantly scanning. I even have to have something to read while I’m eating. I’ll read bottle labels if there is nothing else. Always got to have something to read. I love words and I love good writing. I like a wry, amusing take on the world or a writer who challenges my point of view, teaches me something new. Reading compulsively has given me an encyclopaedic knowledge about half an inch deep. I often wondered about this — what is it good for? What am I good for?

Reading and owning empty notebooks — useless. These longings were leading me somewhere, shouting even. Can you see it yet? I never did.

Work sponsored my MBA and I started at the very bottom with a management certificate. I was never any good at the actual business of managing people but I regularly scored 90%+ in assignments with not much effort and passed years of professional exams. I used to tell people I had a knack for exams but that wasn’t my knack, I just couldn’t see it then.

I enjoyed ordering my thoughts on paper, often joking I was more articulate in writing than in person. Given a moment to think and a chance to write it out, I could be crystal clear. I remained utterly clueless about any gift or talent or what I really wanted or even what I should be doing. How could I have been so dim?

About 10 years ago, bored and in need of a change, I worked my way through the exercises in What Colour Is Your Parachute? asking over and over again, what am I good for? What can I do? What do I want? I did all the exercises, writing page after page, filling one of those notebooks. Although it was some help, nothing came into focus. I’d done all that writing and missed what was staring me in the face.

Soon after launching my business a friend introduced me to selling PDF’s online. It seemed easy to set up and I soon had some e-books, management guides and games on sale. I remember talking to other coaches and consultants mystified why others didn’t write up what they knew and sell it online. It felt easy, within my grasp and if you’d asked I would have said it was an obvious thing to do. Ironically missing the most obvious thing of course.

Two years ago, I was going through one of those restless periods and made a note in my Moleskine (yes) about my ideal day — it would be local, portable, half working alone, half with clients and involving words. I longed for this but couldn’t see what kind of job would fit that lifestyle.

Bear in mind, it shames me to admit, I was in the process of publishing a book on knowing what you want but as is so often the case I was actually writing the book for me. It’s just as well for future sales, I know I’m not alone in this struggle to ferret out what I really want. Nor am I alone in not being able to see where my longings are pointing. What’s astonishing is even with all this evidence I remained blind to it for so long.

Finally

Listen to your longings for they are trying to tell you something.

Believe it or not, even while talking to my publisher about the book I still hadn’t realised. I can’t quite remember what did it. I do remember finishing one afternoon in the library and noticing what I’d been doing had left me feeling like the happiest man on the planet. Unaccountably happy. And then it hit me.

I expect you realised several paragraphs ago what I only saw in the library that afternoon. What had I been doing? Writing of course. Because I’m a writer. That’s who I am and what I am. Foremost in everything, and because I now understand I have no choice, I’m a writer. Even as I knew I had a long way to go to develop any skill it felt like coming home.

I’d love to say scales fell from my eyes. Alas, no new vistas revealed themselves but several things fell into place with a satisfying clunk.

  • I’m obsessed with stationery because I’m a writer and at last I know what I have to do with all those empty notebooks. Fill them. What a pleasure, what purpose.
  • My wide but shallow data collecting is a writer’s gift, pulling stuff together from all over the place, making connections, knowing where to find almost anything.
  • I’m good at exams because I’m good at writing under pressure not because I’m good at management or finance or any of the other boring exams I’ve passed.
  • The exercises in Parachute didn’t help me because the writing was the clue not the answers to the exercises. I was doing the answer all the time but couldn’t see it.
  • Looking back, I have always sold my writing, sometimes for promotion, sometimes to win something and sometimes for actual real money. Doh. I’m a writer. Of course.
  • And my ideal job? Local, part solitary, portable, working with words; kinda fits the bill doesn’t it?
  • And the most important realisation of all, barely weeks old, is the reason I’ve found it so hard to define my coaching products and services is I’m a writer who happens to have a business structure rather than a small business person who writes among other things.

Flow

What you’re looking for is flow.

Two things bring me more pleasure than anything else, writing and drawing. Both put me in a state of flow — a kind of exquisite pleasure drug unlike anything else I’ve ever experienced. And it’s free, legal and clean.

Why is this so important? Took me over 40 years to see it. No one else saw it either. That’s a lot of writing not done and a lot of time spent feeling out-of-place, not quite fitting whatever I happened to be doing.

Any bells ringing?

Follow The Breadcrumbs

Now what about you? What do your trail of clues tell you? What do your longings tell you?

I was powerless in the face of a deep longing to touch and own stationery but I never knew why. It took years to grasp the tug I felt was the call to be a writer and fill them. I spent years stroking them, smelling them and feeling ashamed of having bought so many without the slightest inkling of what these longings were pointing to. I tried to kick the habit many times but then I’d see one and just have to have it. And like a true addict I hid this behaviour, it felt faintly wrong because I didn’t know what it was for.

What is tugging at you? What is hovering outside your attention calling you? Late at night, after a drink or two, when you look past your current life to something else, what whispers can you hear?

What longings do you have telling you something about who you are? What do you love to touch? Any secret habits — fly fishing, old cars, Japanese dolls?

What won’t go away? And is it staring you in the face? (All the time I was writing about how I couldn’t work out what I wanted next or who I was, I was doing it without seeing it.)

What are you doing without seeing?

Listen to your longings for they are trying to tell you something.


PS – If you had asked me ten years ago I would never have imagined I was a writer, it was so far outside my conception of myself, it was not available to me as a choice. You may have the same thing. It might be helpful to find someone else who can point out what your longings mean. Ask around.

About Andrew Halfacre

I can help you figure out what you really want and recover the motivation to go after it.
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