ENNUI (definition): “Listlessness and dissatisfaction resulting from lack of interest; boredom”. Synonyms: Boredom, Languor, World-Weariness, Tedium.
When I am not experiencing it, I love the way the word sounds…all evocative and soft and sensuous. But when I’m in the middle of it, the word kind of drifts away and becomes meaningless. It stops existing.
My favourite synonym for ennui is world-weariness. That it takes that many letters to encapsulate the heaviness of such a light, effervescent word is kind of cool…until you’re floating in that thick morass that ennui happens to be.
But do writers NEED to be world-weary? Do they need to let themselves sink down into the trenches of life before they can come up with material worth writing—worth reading? Not always. But some of us thrive on that kind of material. Some of us feel we are not cracking the crust of the surface if we are not going deep enough into the lives of the characters we create.
I tend to write characters who are not quite strong enough to make it on their own. They are somehow broken, but in being broken they are determined to show their inner strength. Usually, they don’t know they have this strength until I put them into a situation they wouldn’t normally be able to escape. Dangerous and unpredictable circumstances do things to people. And I’m not just talking Indiana Jones dangerous here. I’m talking emotionally dangerous. You don’t have to be balancing an elephant on your nose while walking across a murderous body of water on a trapeze rope to be in danger. Danger can be something as simple as heartbreak.
We don’t know our strength until we are tested. I have to admit that I feel most comfortable as a writer when I am feeling most uncomfortable as a human being. When ennui has its pull and I feel like I can not take another single day of this world-weary existence, all I want to do is write. I want to take one of my characters and put him into that mindset. I want to write a way out for her, help her figure out how to rise above the bleakness. I don’t think I need to live constantly in that unpredictable landscape of ennui, but I know I have to visit there. It’s like paying your dues. If you don’t know the emotion, you certainly cannot write the emotion.
Obviously, that logic also applies to happiness, euphoria, anger, jealousy and all the rest of the gamut of the emotional colour wheel. You cannot write a good story based solely in ennui, just as you cannot write a good story based solely in bliss. We are human beings. We need to have an up to recognize a down and a down to recognize an up. We have to be more open to emotions than the average person. In order to write them, we have to go dangerously close to the limit line of each of our emotions.
This sometimes means that we live on the edge, as far as keeping ourselves together. Sure, it’s kind of rapturous to sink into ennui sometimes…it’s like a hot bath for the mind. Even as you are sinking, you are feeling the lushness of something you cannot quite grasp. What is that wonderful feeling that comes with ennui, that thing that you can’t quite touch but know is there in the periphery? I for one think it is ennui’s opposite. I believe that whatever we are feeling, the opposite emotion is lingering outside the bubble of that emotion. It waves enticingly, tells you, “Okay…you’ve had enough. It’s time to come out of the pool. I’m right here. I’ll save you.”
But just like kids who never want to let go of the fun they are experiencing, we want to stay in the pool. We are deep in the vacuous blanket of ennui and we are thinking, ‘ah…this-this-this nothingness, this disconnection feels so good’. Part of you wants to just keep experiencing that emptiness and languor. As much as it feels bad, it also feels so good.
Writers have a unique opportunity when it comes to our emotions. We can transfer them onto our characters. We can make them experience the ups and downs and be witness to how they deal with them. How they sink. Or swim. This transference is also a good way to snap yourself out of an emotion. You can make yourself happy or you can make yourself sad, just by taking your character on an emotional fieldtrip. There’s a very common saying that I really love and to me it is completely wrapped up in the writer’s experience. The saying itself is common, but one of the best pieces of advice using the saying may be a little less known. I don’t know who said it, but I’ll share it here.
What is the one thing you could say to make a happy man sad and a sad man happy? THIS TOO SHALL PASS.
Whatever end of the emotional rollercoaster you find yourself on, you should always remember that it’s temporary. You will never get away with writing a story that is all downhill or all uphill. The spikes and dips are needed. MSWord is the word processing tool I use to write with. I have always been a little ticked that it has spell check and grammar check, but not emotional mood check. Once I finish a manuscript, of course I do a reading prior to the first editing pass. In that initial reading I am monitoring the emotional mood of the characters, as well as the story itself. Just like a good rollercoaster manufacturer, a good writer knows that the dips and spikes are needed, but that you cannot bring your readers too far down or too far up. You need the right balance. If a rollercoaster went one way—up—people would not have that nervous expectation. They would know that there were no surprises ahead. If it only went down, would they even get on the rollercoaster? What would be the point? You can get the windblown effect with a hairdryer. Go through your manuscript—measure the spikes and dips. Make sure they make sense. Make sure your reader isn’t going to be spending too much time in either place without at least the expectation of the opposite happening eventually.
Of course, you should be unpredictable when it comes to the emotional rollercoaster of your story. No reader wants to know absolutely what is on the horizon. If you can get the right balance of emotions, along with the unpredictability of their sequence and length, you’ll get a reader who wants to forge forward. You also build trust by showing them that you will take them on an emotional rollercoaster.
So, be an engineer. Build yourself a rollercoaster. Not just any rollercoaster, though…one that you yourself would board. Make it a thrill ride of unexpected dips and spikes. But make it reasonable. Make it real. As much as a single emotion begins to feel sensuous and inviting—whether that be a good emotion or a bad one—you can’t spend forever there.
Ennui is at first so daunting and miserable a thing to touch—despite the lilting way the word itself floats off the tongue—but once you are deep in it, once you are drowning in it…it begins to feel so elegant and sensuous, like it’s the only place you want to be. But trust me…it’s at that moment when you begin to like those darker of emotions that it’s time to get out of the pool.
FROM FREEDICTIONARY.COM – “Word History: Were they alive today, users of Classical Latin might be surprised to find that centuries later a phrase of theirs still survives, although as a single word. The phrase mihi in odi est (literally translated as “to me in a condition of dislike or hatred is”), meaning “I hate or dislike,” gave rise to the Vulgar Latin verb *inodi re, “to make odious,” the source of the Old French verb ennuyer or anoier, “to annoy, bore.” This was borrowed into English by around 1275 as anoien, our annoy. From the Old French verb a noun meaning “worry, boredom” was derived, which became ennui in modern French. This noun, with the sense “boredom,” was borrowed into English in the 18th century, perhaps filling a need in polite, cultivated society.”