Yearning: Story's Efficient Engine

by Stanley Dankoski

Nonfiction writers Stephanie Rogers, left, and Ashley Sronce, right, flank Guest Editor Stanley Dankoski, who chose their works to highlight.

Yearning, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler discusses in lectures captured in From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, is an often-neglected component in the art of literary writing but is an integral catalyst for the rendering of plot. To be successful, a story needs desire. Conflict arises when that desire is pitted against the outer reality. Desire exists because the object of desire hasn’t yet manifested within one’s grasp.

Two nonfiction stories in this issue of The Great Smokies Review—“Getting Better,” by Stephanie Rogers, and “Scenes from an Unwritten Memoir,” by Ashley Sronce—exemplify portrayals of their narrators’ yearning: both youthful and experienced, grandiose and humbled, all the while pleading, exploring, searching—for answers, for meaning.

These narrators are young women wanting more. They want to be adults. And they don’t want to be alone. They then get what they ask for, more or less, with unexpected results.

At first we know what Rogers’s narrator doesn’t want. She doesn’t want to be the only single girl in her proximity. She doesn’t want to worry about the rats clawing out of her apartment walls while she goes to pee in the middle of the night. And, while nursing a hangover in her college Beatles class, Rogers writes: “I couldn’t care less about double A-side singles, truth be told.”

What this narrator does care about becomes the spine that forms as the story progresses. The college student wants to fall in love, to be happy in a way that she has never experienced. She yearns to be the yin to somebody’s yang, to yield her inhibitions to a more grounded, supporting other. Yes, she doesn’t care about double A-sides, where both songs share equal recognition on either side, but it’s clear she doesn’t want to be a forgotten B-side either.

“I wanted [love] more than anything else in the human world,” Rogers writes. “Love was like a secret handshake, the password into a room where life was full of infinite possibilities.”

The narrator’s daily routine is rife with drinking hard liquor because that’s what everyone else is doing. She procrastinates with her homework, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing because that leads her to meet Jamie, a straight-edge who enjoys looking up at the stars, watching French new wave films, and cuddling on pink bed sheets. Alcohol nowhere in sight. They become an unlikely pair.

“I don’t remember the color of his eyes, or what I was wearing, or the words we exchanged. But when I looked at him, I knew that something was about to begin.”

The narrator blossoms when she opens up to him, and the language becomes more lyrical and light. “I saw the familiar at unfamiliar times, riding my bike home from Jamie’s apartment at strange, liminal times, early morning, when the sky looked like sherbet and steam rose from the asphalt in hot, translucent waves.” Who needs vodka when first-love goggles reveal colors and textures heretofore unforeseen?

So, with falling in love, you dismantle your armor, let it fall to your ankles, and let your lover bear witness to your self, your soul.

In the midst of Sronce’s hilarious triptych, the narrator bursts with similar yearning, in which she is nearly heels over head in love with a “womanizer” who ultimately doesn’t touch her.

The man is a giant who lives in an apartment with no bathroom, has pieces of trash on his ceiling comprising a spaceship installation, and who offers her cough syrupy soup in a tin cup. Yet something about his way of being in the world—the yang to her yin—has her do and say anything to get him to have his way with her.

Making it to his bed ranks as the highest achievement of her life—she would even die to help complete his spaceship installation—and her lamé dress puddles to the floor. But the womanizer respects her too much. “Womanize me! Womanize me!” she pleads. “Don’t respect me! Please!”

“It was 2002, and I was broad-minded,” Sronce writes. “I would never recover.”

Back in Rogers’s story, when the narrator’s exalted lover falls from grace, he becomes a mirror for her as she reflects on the situation. She sees again the dark circles, the pale skin, the vacant pupils. She reverts to the old self by wanting to see anything other than what she sees. “I got what I wanted. I had fallen in love. And still, I hated myself.”

The narrator of Sronce’s story gets more than what she asks for. In her first step with adulting, she fulfills the lofty goal of owning a plant. Then she fears it is sentient, watching her every move. After she returns from an extended self-care trip, she’s horrified to discover it slumped, greyed from her inattention.

In the story’s last section, the narrator has a boyfriend. They’re on a trip in western India, and she has the flu, and he doesn’t seem to notice. She feels he wants to kill her by being inattentive, which makes her want to kill him. “Who will ever protect me? Not this guy.” When he does seek help, it arrives as a well-meaning local, who corners her and smears ointment onto her eyeballs. The ensuing pain is excruciating, verifying how the boyfriend has wanted to do her in, but then—the pain is gone. She feels better. Ten years later, she’s sick again, with that same ointment by her bed. “I could end it all with one fell scoop and swoosh. Eyes wide open. But I don’t.”

Sronce has imbued nearly every line of her story with little turns like this—lifting up/crashing down, going left/turning right—a conflict technique emblematic of flash fiction, and it becomes her narrative persona.

But here, it’s the last line of her story, introducing a new conflict in the very last word, which is fitting now for a discussion of a tangent of yearning: How we are saboteurs of our own desires. More accurately, how we can be slaves to our comfort, to the familiar, even to that of pain.

The narrator of Sronce’s story knows she can end the pain of being sick, but in order to feel better, she must endure more pain. In Rogers’s story, the narrator wants a better life but she, at first, while drinking, didn’t know how to achieve it.

The act of yearning for someone—or anything—can feel fruitless at first. The object of desire is just far enough away from our grasp, and the more we try to get it, the more obstacles appear, more conflict arises, and we feel like we’re back to square one. Rogers notes that the Beatles would say “It gets better every time,” and “it can’t get much worse.” We live our lives in concentric circles, continually spiraling upward, getting back to the same old thing, but we hope to have achieved a better vantage point.

And so it is with writing an essay like this one: Although these two pieces were obvious choices for me to review, when it came time to step up and face them, I couldn’t remember what drew me to them. Something about them just struck me. I had to reread, reassess, re-examine. I took notes, wrote, revised. The nonfiction story or essay is all about writing through that concentric path, exploring how or why something is the way it is. You simultaneously level up while you dig deeper into meaning. Roger’s and Sronce’s yearning to write about love, self, and desire, is to explore what it means to have yearning at all.

Stanley Dankoski is a writer, book editor, and portrait/event photographer based in Asheville. He took an absolutely unnecessary day trip down Penny Lane to research the Beatles, about whom he knew little, for this essay. (He had previously thought the history lesson complete after watching Carpool Karaoke with Paul McCartney on “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” but no.) This is his third piece to appear in The Great Smokies Review.