Desire is the spark, the source of the flame that burns in us, the flame that impels us to get up out of bed and make things happen in the world. Desire has a relation to love, eros (the root word of erotic) but it also has a platonic sister. Desire can be as simple as a craving for chocolate or as complex as a drive to create social equality. Desire impels, creates change, and sets events in motion. Achieving our desires can be a source of great accomplishment and happiness, but getting attached to a specific outcome can also cause a lot of pain and heartbreak. Desire can hurt you.
When we create characters we need to have a very clear idea about what they desire, and then we need to make sure that many obstacles get in their way. Although it feels a little sadistic sometimes, how the character navigates obstacles is what creates the plot, whether you are writing a short story or an epic novel. Without desire, actions don’t make sense. The desire itself does not have to make sense (think of Don Quixote) but it needs to be present and your reader needs to be able to decipher it.
As a writer you are working with desire at both an internal (yours) and an external (your characters) level. What makes you want to write this particular story or essay? What do you hope to achieve? Is your desire causing you pain or pleasure or both? Maybe you write just to express yourself or to get in touch with memories or feelings, maybe you would like to process something from your past, or re-write history, or maybe you want to pay tribute to someone or something you value. The reason doesn’t matter. What matters is the ability to be self-aware enough to see when your own ego-desires are interfering with the story itself. Often when we get attached to the need for affirmation, with ideas about audience and saleability and social appropriateness we kill the story that we are impelled to tell. When Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita he created a brilliant, sociopathic character who is able to evoke both sympathy and horror (if you’ve never read Lolita go and buy a copy now). Lolita revolves around desire, but Nabokov needed tremendous courage, tremendous vision, and fearlessness about the consequences to write it. He was willing to let the writing eclipse who he was as a man. He was able to create characters who live and breathe completely and eternally.
Handling desire is like handling gasoline. You want to fill the tank of your story, but not pour it all over yourself in the process. My personal experience has been that I really need to let go of attachment to a fixed outcome, and be willing to let my characters do things that I wouldn’t do, and say things that I wouldn’t say. I have to let go of my deep desire to please my imagined readers. The pieces where I’ve been able to do that are the pieces I love the best. The process is like flying a kite. You create enough structure to get the thing up into the air, and then you trust the wind to take it.
“The wind came from no place at all, nor did it go anyplace; that’s why it was stronger than the desert.” -Paul Coelho
Until next time,
Our next writing retreat will take place on Sunday, March 23, 2014. We hope you can join us.
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