If my students remember anything about me, it will probably be how much I love Flannery O’Connor, Robert Olen Butler, Pinckney Benedict, Charles Baxter and other literary heroes. If they remember anything I’ve said, it will probably have something to do with conflict, the accumulation of detail, change, meaning, or desire. Yearning, I remind them, is the engine that drives conflict. Characters must want something “even if it’s only a glass of water,” as Vonnegut says.
Often, what students want to know is how to write a piece of fiction about an event that actually happened to them or someone they know. The truth is we all do this, even though we like to pretend that we don’t and for a couple of good reasons. First of all, we don’t want people knowing our business and secondly, we don’t want to come across as writers lacking imagination. But most of all, as teachers we warn students against writing the literal truth because too often it will hamstring the work. Students don’t yet understand that in order to truly write fiction, a writer has to chop up, reorder, disassemble, trim, and build back up so that the end product is not at all the manure that came out of the compost heap. We make mincemeat of our memories and serve it up as pie.
But back to desire because here is where our lives best intersect with our stories. It’s not the events of our lives that make good fiction; it’s our own particular understanding of yearning, which we need to learn to spot and transmute into our characters and their lives. In this way, we, being like God, breathe our lives into theirs.
I had a dream last night, a nearly wonderful dream. Nearly but not exactly wonderful. It had all the markings of a deliciously sizzling fantasy. There was a sexy man, just exactly my type, but as he came closer, I realized how short he was. Disappointment set in, but in another part of my brain, my mind was determined to make this happen. Move on, it urged. So we did, this nearly perfect sexy man who was just incredibly shorter than I would’ve liked. The setting unfolded, and it could not have been sexier. We were in a spa, it turns out, and this sexy man who was a little on the short side was posing as my masseuse. Nice. There was an element of secrecy. We were on our way. There was water, indoor rivers of a sort, and now we were in it, this sexy, short man and I. But I could feel something along the bottom of the pool, the detritus of former spa goers, I guessed. Rather nasty, but the water was moving and he was sexy (if just a bit too darned short). On and on it went, this absolutely bizarre and ultimately frustrating dream for who knows how long, maybe half the night.
This is how dreams actually work in our lives. For another portion of the night, my mind was working out the plot of a possible novel I might write. In between those activities, I made to-do lists and virtually packed for a trip I will be taking on Friday.
Yet when we think of our characters, if we have them actually dreaming in a story, we having them achieving their desires quite handily. At least many of us do this. We confuse fantasy with dreams. When we fantasize, in real life, we have a great measure of control over the stories we tell ourselves. And then the sexy, tall man of just my type did this and then that and oh! But when we enter that other space, that dreaming space of our white, hot centers, as Robert Olen Butler calls it, we are at the mercy and whims of some deeper part of our psyches. These conflicting desires speak to the human condition in ways that the literal events of our lives do not.
Even if all our character wants is a glass of water, seldom should it quench his thirst. This is perhaps the real challenge for students and new writers: to deny satisfying a character’s desire. Make them want something, but don’t give it to them. Seems obvious enough, but I see this time and again.
What you have to do if you want to write is remember what it means to ache. You know what it is. We all do. But we forget that we know. We’re tempted to write stories about the literal events of our lives because they contain that ache, that yearning, that frustrated desire. We know by instinct perhaps that the stories we’ve lived have all the hallmarks of great literature—and they do. But we need distance, we need a protective gap between our personal selves and our fictions, or else we will botch it every single time.
Flannery O’Connor talks about “the habit of art” as a particular way of seeing the world. Seeing desire, taking note of it in our own lives and in all the lives around us and on the pages we read, is part of this habit. And more than that, too. It’s a practice, a daily temperature-taking. Last night I had a dream where all my desires were thwarted. Hmm. Interesting. What does that say?
Once we get in the habit of taking these readings to heart (and to mind), then it won’t matter what situations we put our characters in. Set them off in a logging truck with no brakes, or let them sit in a darkening room merely talking about love. Make them a husband reincarnated as a parrot or slowly make them turn from dog to man or vice versa. Put them in the A&P with three girls in bathing suits or undergoing male initiation in a summer camp filled with delinquents. The situations will change, and they should. But it’s the same ache for all of us. Water that does not quench our thirsts.