Lee Goodman: Wanting

Lee Goodman

I’m thinking about “want.” as in: “What does a character want?”
When talking about screenwriting, this issue gets pushed
right to the front. Your protagonist must
want something, there must be obstacles…
With regard to prose fiction though, the element of wanting
is less overt, maybe because it’s just instinctive to us fictionalists. We
don’t bother talking about it just like, if we write about a tiger, we don’t
bother saying that tigers prefer raw meat to hummus and broccoli.
It’s probably a writer’s visceral understanding of want that
sends many of us to our pens and keyboards in the first place. And maybe it is
our own particular wants that, by some incomprehensible arithmetic, get morphed
into the ambitions, longings, impulses and urges of our characters. Sometimes
the equation is literal and linear: I’m
looking for love; my character is looking for love.
Other times the
equation gets inverted or skewed; we apply an exponent; a power of ten; a
negative value. But ultimately, want equals want.
Ahab wants the whale.
Humbert Humbert wants an under-aged girl.
We would be unwise to assume that Melville wanted a whale or
that Nabokov, author of Lolita,
wanted a girl, but we can certainly conclude that both authors understood want in
their bones and sinews—want taken to the point of obsession; want driven past
the threshold of insanity.
As a boy I spent my summers on Cape Cod. We stayed in a
house on a bay. When I was young it was a very big bay. The older I got, the smaller
the bay got. My parents rented a sailboat for my sister and me. It was a slow,
fat one-sail tub. Then when I was about thirteen, they bought us an old wooden
boat: a Cape Cod knockabout. It was bigger than the rented one, and it had two
sails. It always leaked and I was always filling its seams with plastic-y stuff
that I’d squeeze from a caulking gun. I had nobody to instruct me on chinking
the seams with oakum as I should have done. Ultimately I tried covering the
boat with fiberglass cloth. But it always leaked.
The bay was wide, but it narrowed to a few hundred feet at
the mouth where a low bridge separated it from the ocean. Motorboats fit under
the bridge. Sailboats didn’t. A neighbor of ours had adapted his sailboat; he
had hinged the mast at deck-level, and put a releasable snap in the forestay,
so he could lay the mast down, motor under the bridge with his little kicker,
then stand the mast back up, and sail away.
I had outgrown the bay; outgrown sailing in circles and
zigzags from shore to shore and end to end. On the other side of that bridge, the
boundless waters enticed, they sparkled with the promise of adventure and
exploration. I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen—in the midst of teenaged
metamorphosis, and all the cravings of a teenager’s over-heated biological and
psychological urgency were mysteriously contained in the come-hither fragrance
wafting in on the salt breeze. The great ocean beckoned.
My parents wisely wouldn’t let me cut the sailboat’s mast. I
wanted to hinge it like the neighbor’s but they said no. So I designed and
constructed a device that didn’t require slicing the mast. It was a sawhorse
shaped thing that I would fasten to the tiny foredeck with cables and
turnbuckles. The plan: I would lift the mast straight up above the foredeck,
lock it into a hinged brace suspended from the cross bar of the sawhorse, and then
easily tip it down, guiding it by hand, then I would paddle under the bridge. On
the other side I’d stand the mast up, set it back into place, refasten the
stays, and at long last I’d be at play in the boundless ocean of my imagining.
When I finished building the device, my dad and I took it out
to where the sailboat lay at mooring. Mom watched from shore. I fastened the sawhorse
to the deck. I lifted the mast straight up and buckled it into the hinged
No doubt there were many flaws in the plan, but things only
progressed far enough for the first to become apparent. I’d built the sawhorse
out of two by fours, and I used cabinet hinges with tiny pre-packaged screws for
attaching the brace-type structure. The mast weighed, I would guess, eighty
pounds. I started to lower it and immediately the mast and I went plunging into
the water accompanied by the heartbreaking sound of splitting wood. I came to
the surface amidst a tangle of halyards and stainless steel stays. It took a
moment for everyone to be convinced I hadn’t been cracked on the head or
somehow dragged under by the lines. Another moment to ascertain that there was
no lasting damage to the mast or boat. The hinges had simply wrenched free of
the two by four.
I never did get my boat out of the bay. And all my adult
life I’ve had an unconsummated desire to be a blue-water sailor in the
wide-open ocean. I think of myself like Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert who, at about
the age I was that sailboat summer, fell “madly, clumsily, shamelessly,
agonizingly in love,” with young Annabel whom he met that summer on the beach. In
Lolita, Humbert and Annabel were twice
foiled by grownups as they tried to consummate their adolescent cravings. Their
summer ended too soon, and poor Annabel was dead from tuberculosis several
months later. We readers are given to believe that the maturation of Humbert’s
sexual and romantic longings, being so permanently and unequivocally defeated,
arrested at that moment. He aged but his obsession didn’t. He became a monster,
driven by the unquiet urge to find Annabel again, searching for her in all young
girls of that age.
Happily, most unfulfilled wants are far less repugnant than
that which infected Humbert. I’m sure that my wanting to sail on the open ocean
Years ago my ex and I attempted to buy a 46 foot steel
sailboat that was moored down in Panama. This is a long story for another time,
but the abbreviated version is that over a course of months we learned that the
boat belonged to a flamboyant drug-running San Franciscan. We negotiated with
the guy’s brother, the girlfriend, and the wife. We even flew to Panama to take
a look and we found there, not the sleek hull we’d envisioned, but a rusted
victim of fatal neglect. Shortly after we returned from Panama, in events which
practically wrote their own metaphors, the boat broke loose from its mooring in
a hurricane and went hard up onto the beach.
I have still never sailed on the open sea.
Major characters must want. They have to want because we
want and our readers want. As I write this post I’m thinking about a character of
mine that I’ve never felt was developed enough. I realize now I don’t fully
understand what she wants.
Even though we all know about wanting on an instinctive
level, maybe it helps to contemplate the genesis of desires: to deconstruct, to
dissect, to analyze. I think what we’ll find if we study this enough, is that
what our characters want, and what we and what our readers want, is to find or
to protect that piece of ourselves that is missing or vulnerable. We want to
feel whole. We want the lost leg, the lost love, or maybe the lost ocean.
Lee Goodman‘s
background is in science, law, and criminal justice. He studied fiction writing
at Boston University, received his MFA from Bennington College, and has
spent a semester as “writer in residence” at the Interlochen Academy
for the Arts. Now he lives off the grid in the hills outside of Anchorage,
commercial salmon fishing in the summer and writing the rest of the year. Join him for a 49 Writers Reading & Craft Talk, “On Writing Commercial Literary Fiction, or Literary Commercial-Fiction?” on Thursday, Nov. 13 at 7 pm at the Great Harvest Bread Company in Anchoage.

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