52: To want, to know, to do.

- December 3, 2017 -

“For rarely do you know what you want,” writes Joyce Carol Oates. “Even after you’ve done it you can’t say clearly if that was what you’d wanted or just something that happened to you, like weather.”

This passage never fails to bring one of those vaguely melancholic smiles of recognition to my face, for it really was a long time before I could say that I was someone who had been deliberate about cultivating my wants.

You see, for much of my life, I had simply been told what to want — mostly implicitly, but sometimes explicitly — by various individuals (e.g., authority figures, cultural institutions), and, trusting their judgment, I had rarely done much to question whether what they wanted for me was what I wanted for myself.

(And, unfortunately, I don’t believe that my experiences with this type of guided wanting are particularly unique or in any way unusual.)

More than just being told what to want, though, I had also been told what not to want, told what things were not acceptable or not appropriate for me to want. Almost inevitably, for instance, high on this list of Things That Must Not Be Wanted™ was any kind of artistic career, disdained as it was for its perceived lack of seriousness or utility. And so if it was a long time before I was able to recognize what it was that I wanted, it truly was an age before I was able to say with any confidence that what I wanted was to become a writer.

You can imagine, then, why I now consider one of the most significant points in my life to have been the period when I first became deliberate about wanting, about going out into the world with self-selected surety, about saying yes to the things I had chosen and no to those I hadn’t. But even then, though, lest you start to think that mine was an exceptional case — because, once again, I don’t believe that it was — I wasn’t at all certain about my choices, and I wasn’t even close to having a practical trajectory mapped out detailing how I might make those choices a reality.

Ultimately, though, I don’t think that either of these two states of knowing are of particular importance to the process of intentional wanting. To this day, I’m constantly fine-tuning my vision of what I want, and there have been any number of instances when just discovering yet another thing that I don’t want has made quick work of focusing my attention.

(And, similarly, recognizing that “Do I want this?” is a very different question from “Should I want this?” or “Is this a good opportunity?” continues to help me separate my almost wants from my actual wants.)


Waving from my desk,
– J


This piece comes from Jana Marie’s newsletter, The Sunday Letters. You can sign up to receive future editions below.