On EI & writing a novel
Can one person apologize for another's actions?
Not long ago, I did just that. I apologized to a small restaurant staff on behalf of a family member. She’d arrived at breakfast late and looked exasperated the moment she sat down. Despite smiles and niceties directed her way, this family member treated both our server and our fellow tablemate rudely. As time passed, she became increasingly impatient, and I couldn’t figure out why.
I had to respond, but how?
"Compassion is . . . a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity." -Pema Chödrön
While I teach things like emotional intelligence and situational control at Ohio State, understanding theories can only equip us with so much. It’s never particularly easy to respond to an emotionally heated situation when we’re caught up in the moment, especially when initial attempts fail. The best we can do is find enough patience to take a step back and allow our limbic brain to finish its song & dance before responding.
A simple choice to pause, to force a sliver of hardwon patience, allows us the ability to cultivate compassion, but what good does that do? Training ourselves to take this pause takes time, but when we can pull it off this moment offers processing time and often a much more desirable outcome. It also offers us perspective. After all, when we take the time to remember that we too sometimes lose our cool illogically, we can better relate to extreme behaviors and not react.
Okay, okay, so emotional awareness (or “intelligence”) is a thing we can develop, and this can help us in the day-to-day, but what does this have to do with writing? I remember a teacher once telling me that the lessons we need to learn in life are the lessons we need to learn on the page—our limits and weaknesses show up in our work the same way they show up in our lives.
For me, this is and always has been a lack of patience. A desire to ignore the value of the pause.
As a young/new writer, I knew this: emotions are the currency of creativity. Without anger, I don’t think I’d have written a single creative word. Without sadness, I wouldn’t write empathetic characters. Without joy, I couldn’t offer those glimpses of hope.
That said, anger does a shit job of revision. Other terrible revision partners include grief, sadness, worry, romance, and elation. Revision, especially in longer work, takes emotional calibration. It takes more than a pause. And to write a novel takes a shitton of pauses. It takes months and sometimes years to create the same processing, perspective and desirable outcome one might be able to manage when dealing with an unhinged tablemate.
My first novel, We Arrive Uninvited, was a seedling in 2013. I wrote some of the scenes that remain today way back then, and I caught the emotional resonance of the entirety of the novel in that first year, maybe even the first days, of writing. I thought it was complete in 2015. I thought it was complete in 2017. I thought it was complete in 2020. It was completed in 2021, and it is just now about to emerge to either fanfare or a tepid response—who knows? But what I know is this: it is ready. It’s fully cooked. It is my best work, and I’m proud. Prouder than I would’ve been in 2015, 2017, or 2020. I know it’s ready because I can see myself at the table with my family, watching chaos ensure the same way I can see myself at the computer, saving “_FINAL” again and again.
And I can see what happens when I allow the pause.
The last server to come to our table and find herself berated was angry. She snapped at my tablemate and then made eye contact with me alone as she spoke to her. I nodded and told her to bring us the bill as the voice next to me continued to complain about the lack of quality service.
Thanks to the pause, I reached out to the upset party and placed my hand gently on her arm. She was too upset to register my touch with anything more than an increased annoyance, so I asked her if she was okay.
I told her the meal seemed complete, but maybe we could pick up the discussion another time, or continue it at my house. She left, and I got the bill. I apologized to the staff on behalf of my family member, and they seemed surprised.
“I apologize as much as I can on behalf of another person,” I said. But as soon as I said it, I knew it only did so much. We can’t apologize or make up for the acts of another. Nor can we repair anything another human has done, but we can recognize that we are so often just a few upsets and a few pauses away from acting much in the same way they did, especially if we haven’t learned and trained to take that step back.
That simple step that so few people take. And to be fair, I am only just beginning to learn this lesson myself in both writing and life.
On Creative Emotional Intelligence
Here’s a sample video on Creative EI for a longer course. The exercise is simple, but I find it rather useful.