One of the perks of being a writer is that you can coin new phrases, put them out in the world, and hope they catch on…
humpback moment: (noun) an unexpected wave of emotion
Here’s how the phrase originated. My family often visits friends in Cape Cod. For years, we had been considering going on a whale watch, but we always worried that we’d shell out a lot of money and not see too many whales. In the summer of 2008, however, our kids were old enough, and less likely to complain about the waiting and watching and patience required. The boat ride would be fun, with our without whales. So we went for it.
Suited up in our windbreakers to protect ourselves from the salty spray, we headed out. An hour or so went by. We saw a whale or two. They were impressive, but pretty much just shadows under the water. Soon, we were cold, soaked, and discouraged.
Then, not far from the front of the boat, a humpback whale breeched the surface. It’s nose rose out of the water like a monolith of ridged marble until we could almost see its tail. Then, when it reached its apex, it fell gracefully in seemingly slow motion to its side, and reentered the water with a thunderous splash.
The wake of this spectacular rushed toward me, entered my toes, traveled up my body, and emerged through my face in the form of an audible sob and outpouring of tears. I was overwhelmed by this unexpected burst of emotion. I was filled with complete awe and gratitude that something so beautiful happened in this world, and I was lucky enough to witness the fleeting moment.
From then on, in our family, whenever we experience an unexpected wave of emotion, we call it a humpback moment. But a humpback moment doesn’t always have to involve the natural world. In fact, mine usually involve people…
–I had a humpback moment at my daughter’s 8th grade spring chorus concert when she suddenly broke the serious formation of students, pulled on a pink baseball cap backwards, and started rapping a solo, complete with arm pumps into the air. She brought the house down.
–I had a humpback moment when my disabled 44-year-old brother waterskied and his face beamed with a sense of freedom he had never experienced before.
–I even had a humpback moment at the latest Star Wars release when John Williams’ score filled the theater and the introductory words started crawling up the movie screen.
When I sit down to write emotional scenes, and I want them to feel authentic to readers, these humpback moments are the memories I go back to. Waves of emotion that literally travel through you are easier to translate onto the page because you’ve felt them in your core. You can’t just invent emotions out of thin air and expect them to feel real to a reader.
I wish many humpback moments for you. You can’t go looking for them. They arrive unexpectedly.
But they will find you.