On a regular Monday night in my college dorm I begin to tiptoe around, with one toe breaking through my stockings, interviewing everyone I can find.
“Tell me,” I ask each one, making my way through the wings in the building. “What’s one thing you wanted very badly but never got?”
I’m asking because my Greek history professor told us that any good writer—no, any person—knows what it’s like to want something badly but never get it. He cited Achilles, who wanted the girl Breseis, didn’t get her, and thus sparked the Iliad.
I want to see if my professor’s claim holds true. Does everyone know what it feels like? In charging around the dorm, pen in hand, I follow my instinct that wherever I find thwarted desire, I will find a good story, or at least a decent exercise in creativity.
“A big sister,” says Gabby, digging through a drawer for toothpaste. She chuckles bashfully now at the biological impossibility of the idea.
Stephanie, across the hall, seems astonished by my inquiry but then confesses she wanted a Barbie Dream House but got a Lego-type one instead.
Our soccer captain, Sophie, mentions an athletic rivalry with her older sister. “Liv had skill,” she says, “but I had desire. I wondered why God spent the skill on her. I wished He would take away her talent and give it to me. But I learned that sometimes you have to work for things.”
Katie stands in the lobby wearing a blue-checkered dress, a costume for the school play, while a seamstress hovers around her. “I always wanted to be on Broadway,” says Katie, flashing a full smile. “I went to the circus. I asked, ‘Please let me be in the circus!’” Katie became a professional ballerina instead, then gave that up for school.
Tella wanted riding lessons. Danielle wanted moon shoes.
“It’s … hard … to … phrase …” says Josiah, standing in the lobby. “I wanted a strong sense of community beyond my nuclear family—to be unconditionally cared for by a community of believers.” And instead of the Legos he wanted for Christmas he got books, “which,” he adds, “was the beginning of a very good thing.”
I call over the railing to young man sitting on the couch.
“Marshall! What’s one thing you wanted and never got?”
He removes his headphones. “To fly a helicopter.”
I think what really propels me around, asking strange questions, is a deep belief that desire matters. That, and genuine curiosity. The people I ask smile, take unexpected journeys to their interiors, and bring me back treasure.
They know about thwarted desire. It brings to mind this tasty advice from Ray Bradbury’s book Zen in the Art of Writing:
“Be certain of this: When honest love speaks, when true admiration begins, when excitement rises, when hate curls like smoke, you need never doubt that creativity will stay with you for a lifetime.”
Desire propels story. And as long as they are willing to tell me theirs, I should have something to write about.