Homesick For A Place That Doesn’t Exist

One of the blogs I read every day (or as often as it’s updated) is called Making Light. The blog is hosted  by Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden, both of whom are editors, teachers of writing, and major figures in the world of SF. The subject matter is varied and fascinating, ranging from science fiction and fantasy (naturally), to the business of publishing, to politics and world events, to, well, just about anything.

It’s usually at least an interesting read, but this recent post by co-blogger Abi Sutherland (an American living and working in the Netherlands) particularly set me to thinking. The post was written as a response to one on Roger Ebert’s blog (which you can find here), on the subject of loneliness. Sutherland’s post is mostly about the sense of community one can find at various places on the Internet (something to which I think we can all relate), but it was this passage that really struck a chord for me:


[Ebert] wrote it from the perspective of being one of those happy people who does not get lonely, and I think he goes astray as he does. He wants to attribute it to causes, to lost loves or love never found, but I tend to think that some of us are simply prone to longing.


I don’t even know what we long for. Not necessarily for companionship, or love, or friendship and interesting conversation; I have all of those in abundance. I’ve been married seventeen years, and I know I am beloved. My children adore me the way that children often do adore their mother. I have friendships both in person and remote. And I return all of these sentiments wholeheartedly. I’m not achingly lonely the way I was as a teenager. But still…


An evangelical type might tell me I long for his version of God. Madison Avenue will happily detail all that I should long for, and how much I can save by buying it while it’s on special offer. Many Americans, particularly conservatives, will tell me that I long for liberty, here in “oppressive” Europe. Perhaps any or all of these people are right, but I doubt it. My experiences don’t match their assumptions.


Something in me longs for a place I feel at home; perhaps that’s it.


I may just be projecting here, but it seems to me that’s why a lot of us read, and why a lot of us write: a longing for someplace we feel at home.

One of the things I’ve always loved about the German language (Mark Twain’s’ hilarious distaste for it notwithstanding) is the amazing variety of precise words it contains for very specific and complex emotions and states of mind. One of those is Weltschmerz. The word is usually translated as “world-pain” or “world-weariness”, but I’ve always preferred the definition given by Meyer in one of the Travis McGee books: “homesickness for a place that doesn’t exist.”

How many times have we heard readers tell us that they read to escape? Often, that statement is followed by a story of some wrenching event in their lives, or some horrible time they’ve gone through, and how such and such a book helped them get away from it for a while. It we’re really lucky, the book’s one of ours. But I’ve found that even people, like myself, who are well provided with “companionship, or love, or friendship and interesting conversation” still have that sense of longing to be, at least for a short time, in another place. Some of us feel the need so acutely that we’re driven to build those places in our heads, then invite other people to visit there too. This occasionally annoys our companions, loved ones and friends, because it does at times seem more than a little ungrateful. But it really has nothing to do with them. We’re just, as Ms. Sutherland says, prone to longing.


So, am I off base here? Does loneliness (or longing, if you prefer) drive YOUR writing or reading?

29 thoughts on “Homesick For A Place That Doesn’t Exist

  1. Laura Jane Thompson

    I've always described it in my mind as displacement, a sense of shaky ground and vague discomfort. Writing creates a snapshot in time, and even if I'm writing about fictional people in a fictional world, I always remember where I was and how I felt when I wrote a particular passage. The same goes for reading. I'll often pick up a book I've read before and I'll remember when I last read it: what was going on in my life, how I felt, etc.

    I'm not in any way dissatisfied with my life, but I definitely get what you're saying, J.D. Displacement. Longing. Seeking something you can't describe but nonetheless know exists. And, for me at least, it's soothed as much by reading as by writing.

    Posts like this, for example, where you recognize something in yourself just by reading someone else's thoughts. It's comforting.

  2. Karen in Ohio

    Dusty, don't you think age mitigates the longing somewhat? I know I was much less satisfied with life when I was younger, and more inclined and inspired to pour out my heart about it back then. It's a lot more difficult to do now.

    LOVE the Mark Twain! Thank you for the link. He was brilliantly hilarious.

  3. MJ

    Great post – I'm really fighting the tendency of my current stories to be melancholy (why are my protagonists all burned out and looking to go home, though they don't know where "home" is?) and I think that a large part of that is feeling like I'm somehow lodged sideways in life. Like there is a home, or a place of belonging and comfort, out there that I'm having a hard time finding. My life is perfectly stable and sound and I really have nothing (non-bourgeouise) to complain about, but I do feel like I'd very much like to go home – and I have no idea where that place might be. I really can't imagine living and feeling otherwise.

  4. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    As far back as I can remember I've had an intense sense of longing. I had a music instructor once who said that we should never be satisfied, that we should always be longing.
    However, there is something to be said for being satisfied.
    When I read a great book I do get this sense of satisfaction, and yet I know it is fleeting. It lasts only as long as my lunch hour or the half-hour before I go to bed. It feels rushed.
    And so I long for the time when I can sit back and read a book without longing.

  5. Debbie

    I don't know, but could it be ego overload? We're just not feeling valued, noticed? Loneliness is a vacuum, a lack of connectivity. Doesn't matter wheter there's many people in our lives if we don't feel equalibrium.

    There's a barren field, train tracks cross the land in two endless lines. Parallel to each other and parallel to you. But trains pass, inches away, busy, fast. You sit, do not see, do not notice. Am unseen, unnoticed. There is no spark of interest from without, no spark of life from within.

  6. Cornelia Read

    Dusty, you are a goddamn genius. This is exactly the longing that drives my writing–yearning for people and places that don't exist anymore, friendships and loves lost, things that so should have happened but never quite did… and longing for justice, and to have had a voice in the past when I was a little kid with no weight in the world.

    And you've made me think of a wonderful moment once when I was working at the horrific "Crazy School…" There was a kid playing his French horn off in the woods someplace on campus, and the sound of it carried through an open window during a faculty meeting. The two dance teachers, married to one another, looked at each other and said "That's it! That's the sound!"

    When I asked them what sound they meant, they explained they'd been working on a dance piece representing longing, and hadn't quite yet put their fingers on what the best sort of music would be. They went with French horn. I though that was really cool…

  7. Barbie

    I've never really had close friends, you know, those you know you can always go to, no matter what, no matter when, no matter where… that's why I started writing. Because I wanted "friends". I would write characters who were going through similar things as I was, but they weren't as alone as me. Actually, to this day, I still write because I want friends, I just learned to broad the subjects a bit 🙂

  8. kagey

    My writing often has to do with a sense of being off kilter. Of feeling that there is more going on than people are talking about, or that most people are willing to see. It's a loneliness, but to me it's often rooted in a sense that surely someone, somewhere is seeing what I'm seeing. Where are the others who do? Maybe I'm really the only one who looks at the world in this odd way?
    When I finish a poem that I think grasps an elusive thought or feeling, I feel satisfaction for a bit, maybe even satisfaction each time I see it, if I did it well. But there's always another undefined moment to explore, another world to create.

  9. JD Rhoades

    "Posts like this, for example, where you recognize something in yourself just by reading someone else's thoughts. It's comforting."

    Glad to be of service 🙂

  10. JD Rhoades

    Cornelia: on the subject of French horn, I agree there are few instruments so good at expressing longing. At the closing credits of the English version of "The Office", they use a version of the old Rod Stewart song "Handbags and Gladrags" that ends with a short, sad French horn passage…chokes me up every time. And it so perfectly expresses the characters.

  11. JT Ellison

    This is beautiful. The book I'm working on is a product of longing, without a doubt. It's nice to put what has been in the back of my mind into actual words. Thanks, Dusty. You're a lifesaver!

  12. Debbie

    Hey Dusty? Ego…don't want you to think that I meant you personally. I'm thinking of a societal generality as we look for emotional security while turning inward rather than reaching outward. When our creativity to share self rather than to simply express self stretches its hand, it becomes selfless, void of ego.

  13. Reine

    JD, yes it is really that for me with reading and writing – that I sort it all out and live in relationship. I am only lost when I cannot read the book I need or write along at the speed of feeling like my pal Dostoevsky.

    Cornelia, I made some real friends in Field of Darkness and The Crazy School. Now I am forced to invent a new attachment for my old book stand to MAYBE be able to read Invisible Boy – at the risk of profound motor neuron loss – OR you could just call me and read it to me over the phone. 🙂

    LOVE you guys!

  14. Allison Davis

    Yes, longing is a driver in my writing, looking for that place to belong where no one but myself can displace me.

    Yesterday I got word a friend, family really, someone I had know "before I was born" (our parents were friends) died unexpectedly in Italy; he was well loved so there have been lots of memories. Then heard today one of my partners lost his wife to cancer after a four year seige.

    These events cause me to remember and yes, long for, certain times (and people) in my life I can't get back to — Except, maybe, if I write about it. Very timely, spot on.

  15. Alafair Burke

    This is such a nice post. Thanks.

    I started my first book after I moved from Portland to a place I didn't want to be and where I didn't know anyone. Writing it was like going back to my own town with my own friends.

  16. KDJames

    I had time to read this post before work this morning and have been thinking about it off and on all day and I feel like I have something important to say about it, something I need to say about it, but I can't articulate it just yet. And perhaps not ever. Thank you for writing it, for making me ponder what this means to me. As others have said, it struck a chord.

  17. MJ

    Re French Horns, I've always found the oboe to also express (sometimes charmingly awkward) longing – see William Bolcom's Donald Hall song cycle (like Horse Song ). Its funny little dry bleat can be so plaintive. Also, Dawn Upshaw's Knoxville Summer of 1915 (if this one doesn't touch you to weeping, nothing will) – Barber also understood the oboe sound (like a funny, gawky animal that needs a comforting pet).

  18. MJ

    Re French Horns, I've always found the oboe to also express (sometimes charmingly awkward) longing – see William Bolcom's Donald Hall song cycle (like Horse Song ). Its funny little dry bleat can be so plaintive. Also, Dawn Upshaw's Knoxville Summer of 1915 (if this one doesn't touch you to weeping, nothing will) – Barber also understood the oboe sound (like a funny, gawky animal that needs a comforting pet).

  19. pari noskin taichert

    I know I felt tremendously lonely when I was young. I felt misunderstood. Now I have a strong sense of belonging and community, but I'm writing more than ever.

    I don't know if any of those things are related to each other but your post has made me think.

    Thank you.

Comments are closed.