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Self-Soothing is Really All about Micro-Tension

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It’s been a while since I’ve shared thoughts here, my dear Unboxers. I took a sabbatical last year for a chance to catch up on a deadline that I was horribly behind on after covid and a major family emergency. Ironically, the time off allowed me to enjoy so many more of your posts. You really are a brilliant bunch of writers. There are as many thought-provoking comments as there are posts. This community is so special and I feel lucky to be among you. But I digress. All is well here now. It’s well…except for January.



It was all things. And it was one thing, like a solid door. Its cold sealed the city in a gray capsule. January was moments, and January was a year.

-Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt

As I stare out at yet another gray day, I’m wishing for a snowy winter day with bright skies rather than the gloomy rain that has plagued New England this year. The dreariness, in fact, has me popping vitamin D and looking for ways to put a little more pep in my step. To self-soothe. So I started thinking about ways I self-soothe and there were a few immediate obvious answers. I bake. I read poetry. I rewatch historical flicks and romcoms. I exercise. (Shortly after writing this article, I’m going to make oatmeal cookies. If the aroma of cinnamon and sugar can’t make you feel better, nothing can.) But I also pace and doom scroll and have a glass of wine, preferably with friends, and suffer anxiety dreams.

This got me thinking more deeply about those habits and my subsequent needs, and most importantly,  what they’re connected to. I didn’t have to look far. If you opened my calendar, you’d see this:

  • 7 weeks left of teaching my Editing Intensive MFA class (planning, grading, instruction time)
  • 7 weeks to my book launch of Strangers in the Night and yet I’m watching the picket lines outside of HarperCollins continue…
  • 10 weeks until I have to turn in revisions for my book coming next winter
  • A running deadline of a collaboration I’m working on with my sometimes-writing wife, Hazel Gaynor

There’s a lot of good stuff here for sure, but it’s still quite a lot to manage in a short period of time. Ultimately, my self-soothing underscores what my calendar tells me: I’m stressed and I’m stewing over a few things. 1.) I really want more time to put in on another full draft of the WIP before I submit the “completed” revisions, but it’ll be really tight and I’m worried it’ll make the book too thin; 2.) I’m hoping my students feel like they’re getting something out of the class and that I’m giving them enough material to challenge themselves; and 3.) the largest among them, a struggle related to being a midlist author at mid-career with a publisher on strike. Numbers are everything and if sales on the book are mediocre, this affects the possibility of another book contract which in turn affects whether or not I’m picking up more jobs to pay the bills which in turn affects how much I can be around for my kids who are extremely needy at the moment for various reasons.

And now we’re at the heart of the matter. What was seemingly about weather is about a whole lot more. Beneath the self-soothing, there is “stewing,” or a struggle of sorts. A struggle related to our emotional selves.

It never takes us fiction writers long to jump from ourselves to our characters. I began to think of my current protagonist and wondered, how does she self-soothe? More importantly, why? As it turns out, putting the character in the situation of needing to self-soothe is actually a great tool to create or heighten micro-tension.

We can use our protagonist’s self-soothing habits to underscore something essential about who they are. These habits can reveal something about a character’s backstory, give a window into what has formed them and how it influences their means of coping with the curve balls thrown at them on the page in the story. After the second instance this self-soothing habit appears on the page, the reader gets the signal that all is not well, and in comes the tension.

A few ways to show this struggle can be done through:

  • personality traits or coping mechanims like humorous quips, lashing out to make themselves feel better, or becoming reckless with their jobs/health/lives to avoid the inevitable
  • repetitive habits or tics like picking at scabs, rubbing a lucky stone, counting backwards in their head, singing a particular song under their breath over and over, nail biting, etc.

For other examples, in my current WIP, my protagonist soothes herself by feeling for the knife that she keeps tucked under the waistband of her skirt. It’s the kind of thing that makes the reader wonder WHY? What happened to her in the past? In my second novel, my sculptress protagonist is one who experiences the world through her hands so when stressed or anxious, she rubs her pointer finger and thumb together to ground herself in a sense of reality.

These very subtle aspects of layering can really enrich the narrative and make a character feel more authentic, more alive.

Do you feel the same way? What does your MC do to self-soothe? Why? What does it say about them and their past? Is there some example you can think of from your own work or others, where the author created micro-tension during moments when a character is seemingly practicing self-care or self-soothing?

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