“The story world,” writes John Truby, “doesn’t boil down to, ‘I think, therefore I am,’ but rather ‘I want, therefore I am.’”
Stories aren’t driven by a character’s epistemology or theology, but by the simple proclamation that someone wants something and can’t have it. They are the domain of unmet and unfulfilled desires. A man loves a woman. A woman must save the town from attack, whether by plague or an invading army. Stories view a character’s thoughts – her fears and hesitations, her beliefs and prejudices – as secondary to her desires. For the latter that drives her actions.
But the truly audacious claim stories make isn’t that a character is ruled by his desires, and his prejudices about the Capulets can be overcome by his love for a woman, but rather the deeper claim of life is like this… Sure, stories are a distillation – this is why you never see or read of someone brushing their teeth – because the author chooses and discards unnecessary events. Yet the author, whether aware or unaware, makes the claim that one event leads to another, that our actions have significance, and that life itself has meaning (unless, of course, there are explicitly claiming life doesn’t have meaning, which is a meaningful statement to make).
If we believe the audacious claim that life is like this…, then we must be open to the idea not only that our lives have meaning, but also that the foundation of our own stories isn’t what we believe but what we want. As we live our stories in the 21st century, driving to work and sitting before computer screens, hurrying through dinners and airports, pleading with our children to calm down or with ourselves to speak up, perhaps our beliefs aren’t guiding our actions all this time, but what we most desire.
The story world – and maybe even the real world – doesn’t boil down to ‘I think, therefore I am,’ but rather ‘I want, therefore I am.’
A number of years ago I decided to wake earlier each morning in order to exercise and journal. As we all know, our hearts are at their most fickle in the moment following the alarm. If I set my alarm an hour earlier, I simply rolled over, unfazed by my designs the night before. If I tried to move my alarm five minutes earlier, I simply disregarded it for five minutes.
The trick, I found, wasn’t to somehow impose rigid discipline on myself, or even to get to bed earlier, though that happened over time. Rather, I sat on the edge of my bed one evening and imagined what waking early would mean: the still morning, a cup of coffee, the clarity that journaling without distraction would bring.
I spent time wanting to wake early because I couldn’t trick my heart, but I could position it to want the right thing.
Life is like this, says the storyteller. A character begins with what he wants. I could say we build beliefs around those desires, but that would be another topic. Instead, I am reminded to pay attention to what I want, and what I most want. This world has a ready answer to this question, urging me to consume, watch, engage. Stories, however, remind me of my deepest desires: love, survival, family, making a mark on this world.
Letting the world curate my desires leads to chaos. But when I answer the question of what I most want; when I take time to ask again and again what I am after rather than taking the answer handed to me; here is where my story begins.