It was in the middle of a recent writers workshop that a line from a Rolling Stones song popped into my mind. The line, and the song, is “You can’t always get what you want.”

This happened as the workshop leader was talking about some of the nuts and bolts of writing a novel. While describing the development of character and plot, he said that the main character – and there should almost always be just one main character – must have a want and a need. They may not get what they want, but they must get what they need.

In the workshop, we analyzed several famous novels to determine the main characters’ wants and needs, and they weren’t always obvious or easy to identify. But we could see the importance of recognizing and differentiating them.

Although I’ve done lots of different types of writing, I’ve never attempted a novel. But since much of my writing – in particular this blog and the newspaper column I wrote for 16 years – has to do with my own thoughts, observations, insights, and values, I guess that makes me somewhat of a main character. Trying to identify my own wants and needs – in my writing and in my life – has been challenging, and it got me thinking about wants and needs on a bigger, more global scale than self-analysis. Or novels.

Some wants and needs are physical and material, such as food and shelter. Or money and clothing. Others are less specific and a bit harder to pin down. Dignity and respect. Appreciation and validation. Power. Security.

Differentiating which are wants and which are needs can be harder still. But I think doing so for ourselves, or at least making the attempt, can help us identify our true values and priorities. And it may help us understand why we can be left frustrated and unsatisfied by goals and accomplishments we thought would make us happy once we achieved them. A coach I once worked with said that a lot of people spend their entire life climbing the mountain to reach their goals, but once they succeed in getting to the top, they come to a stark realization: they’re on the wrong mountain.

Maybe the secret to success in anything is figuring out what it is we really need, instead of chasing after what we want. Or think we want. After all, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find: you get what you need.”

The Rolling Stones certainly knew what they were talking about. The workshop leader, too.

May 15, 2023
©Betty Liedtke, 2023

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