‘The more Susan waited, the more the doorbell didn’t ring. Or the phone.’ Douglas Adams – Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency
I’ve always liked Advent – the idea of waiting by preparing. Active waiting. Years ago, when I was waiting and hoping for a baby, I bought a handmade crib in a hilltop town in Provence. It consists of a pottery stable and a set of hand-painted pottery figures. The baby came, in the end. My son has loved the crib all his life. This morning I set it out on the hall table as I do each year in Advent. Every year, in the final days leading up to Christmas, my son and I quietly shift the figures around the crib. We never mention it. He and I just independently move shepherds and kings, sheep, donkey and angel, Mary and Joseph, arranging them differently as we pass by, encouraging them towards the stable. We are silently but actively engaged in waiting.
We all wait, and in so many modes. I wish we had more words for the ways we wait. Anticipate, expect, plan, foresee, endure… most of these suggest a definite outcome, or imply a method of allowing time to pass – not great ways of waiting, in my view. We wait passively, actively, with hope, without hope, in good humour and bad, peacefully as well as anxiously, in sickness and in health, awake or asleep, letting time go by and railing against its passing.
I’ve poked around a bit in the roots of this word WAIT that we use so freely, and for which there seem to be so few alternatives. I wouldn’t have guessed that it came from an Old Northern French noun – waitier – meaning a watchman, a sentinel, a scout. The noun’s meaning evolved a parallel but abstract sense of watchfulness or expectancy by the late Middle English period. By the 17th century ‘a wait’ meant a stretch of duty as a warder in the Tower of London, and then by the 19th century, a period of waiting in the modern sense, as in ‘a long wait’.
I can only think of one example of a word in current usage where the old meaning of ‘wait’ shines through. A ‘waiter’ or ‘waitress’ – someone who waits at table – waits in the sense of observing, noticing what’s needed, what people want. S/he keeps watch, pays attention to. The waiter’s role is – as anyone who has worked in the restaurant trade knows – anything but passive.
I worked hard at making my decisions about breast surgery eight years ago, probably as hard as I’ve ever worked at anything. The decisions were important and deserved close attention. I was waiting on myself, on my thought processes and emotions, on advice from experts. I was waiting in a different way than I would later wait – having made the decision to go ahead – for the surgery date to come. I waited in yet another way to recover. But that first waiting was a vital space to inhabit. It was a time to adapt and grow. It proved to be invaluable to my relatively positive experience of the surgery and then to how well and quickly I recovered.
The writing life is a life of waiting. Writers watch, pay endless attention, listen as watchmen might. Writers engage with time in the same way that watchmen do, with the same intensity. Writers bear witness. All this waiting, to do the work.
Of course as writers we often find ourselves waiting for and on the opinions and decisions of others – agents and editors, publishers, prize judges, reviewers. We can be impatient with the rest – we want to know the outcome of this submission or that competition. Everything seems to take so long! The prize culture whips up storms of waiting and exacerbates impatience by setting writers up to feel like passive victims of the binary system of win or lose. But if only we can live the waiting as an opportunity to grow, a time in which to inhabit possibility, and also quite simply as a chance to get on with other things, then we are all winners.
Currently I’m waiting, as ever, to hear the outcomes of various submissions. I’m also waiting (until February) to hear the result of the Mslexia Memoir Competition. My book – which has already entailed many many years of various kinds of waiting, and which is all the better for that – has made it through from submissions (1,000) to the longlist (80) and now to the shortlist (12). I like to think I’m getting better at waiting. Actually these days I’m not sure I’d cope well with a state of waitlessness. Anyway, whatever happens, I hope that I’ll always find more and more ways to wait creatively, actively, peacefully. Perhaps I’ll get to work on coining a few new words too, to denote different kinds of waiting.