Day 9: Obsession Is Not A Problem, It’s A Cure

A Guest post by Randi Beck Ocena

Somewhere in my head, there is a filing cabinet full of things I want to find, learn, peruse or pursue.  These projects vary from the ephemeral to the interminable and when I do chance to swim through them, I often find myself lost in a vast sea of library stacks research, internet archives, paper trails, and hazardous materials, or caught up in some precarious experiment requiring a double boiler, gum mastic, and power tools.

(In the end, this will have something to do with writing. I promise.)

Among the more recent interests: testing various sizes of spade drill bits, mapping with astrocartography, tracing my family lineage, investigating a string of local missing persons, and memorizing the Tsalagi syllabary by heart.

Sometimes there are more spontaneous projects.  For example, I once carved the likeness of Boris Karloff into half of a honeydew melon.  It took over an hour.

I have collectively filed these projects under Distractions, Creative. But when I really get interested in something, It becomes nearly impossible for me to leave it alone. I go to bed and wake up thinking about it. I’m easily consumed by my interests and my wife can testify to my single-mindedness.

Recent conversation:

Sam: “What do you want for dinner?”

Me (squinting at digitized family tree): “…hm?”

Sam: “Dinner? What do you want for dinner?”

Me: “Hey I think my great great great Uncle Ephraim might be related to Elvis”

(20 minutes later)

Sam: “Did you switch the laundry?”

Me: “Soup is fine, thanks.”

As a graduate student and someone with major guilt issues, not to mention serious problems with time management in general, I sometimes worry about “wasting” my time (egad, there’s a whole other post in that), particularly when the time I spend actually writing seems brief by comparison. Most writers/artists I know have a similarly vast and eclectic array of interests.  But what good are these odds and ends? Why does one need to find their missing relatives? Or know the difference between the smells of cut cedar, birch, and oak? Or the name of every native wildflower in English and Latin? Sure these things can liven up your writing. But I’m talking about weeks, months, even years of study, not just an hour rummaging Google or the public library. And more specifically, study that has nothing at all to do with your career or financial gain or any benefit beyond your personal interest and investment in it. For our purposes, we’ll call these positive obsessions.

Madness and the Creative Mind

There’s a lot of research out there on the relationship between creativity and madness and I don’t dare venture into all of it right now.  But when I looked into the notion of “obsession” in particular, here is a tiny bit of what I found, drastically oversimplified:

According to most modern psychologists, there are both “positive” and “negative” forms of obsession.  The line distinguishing them may be hazy, but basically, if it makes you want to work constantly at something you love or can’t stop thinking about, you can call it a positive obsession. If it makes you want to cut off your ear, that might be toeing the line. And if it makes you want to cut off someone else’s ear, then you’ll probably want to talk to someone about that.

Here are a few inspiring examples I found of positive creative obsession:


#1: James Cameron: For his latest movie, Avatar, he employed a university linguistics professor to create an actual functioning language for the tribe of blue aliens on Pandora. And one can’t help but be reminded of JRR Tolkien, who spent decades developing Quenya, one of the Elvish languages spoken by the characters in his books, complete with regional dialects, grammatical rules, complex syntactical structuring, and a lovely writing system. As far as I know, Mr. Tolkien didn’t receive any additional monetary gain by inventing an entire language. That was just part of his project, and he was dedicated to it.

#2: Another written testament to obsessive creativity. Here’s a neat book by Lisa Congdon:


“A Collection a Day catalogs all 365 of Congdon’s quirky, obsessive, endlessly curious collections of tchotchkes — erasers, pencils, vintage stamps, mushrooms, receipts, medals, maps, sea urchins, and just about everything in between — in a beautiful volume that’s somehow calming and centering in its neatness, a rare oasis of order amidst the chaos of the everyday stuff that surrounds us.”

#3: A Water and Stick Sculpture by Land Artist, Andy Goldsworthy:

ImageHis philosophy: “My approach to photograph is kept simple, almost routine. All work, good and bad, is documented. I use standard film, a standard lens and no filters. Each work grows, strays, decays—integral parts of a cycle which the photograph shows at its height, marking the moment when the work is most alive. There is an intensity about a work at its peak that I hope is expresses in the image. Process and decay are implicit.”

The Good News About Obsession:

In an article on positive obsession, natural psychologist and creativity coach, Dr. Eric Maisel says:

“When you obsess, you learn how to extinguish distractions so that you can concentrate. You accept the hard existential fact that if you intend to matter you must act as if you matter. You retrain your brain, asking it to halt its pursuit of fluff and worry, to instead embrace its own potential. In addition, you announce that you prefer grand pursuits to ordinary ones; you stand in solidarity with other members of your species who have opted for big thinking and big doing. And you turn yourself over—even to the point of threat and exhaustion—to your own loves and interests.”

Make Obsession Work For You:

“Embark on a month of productive obsessing, then another, and, ultimately, a lifetime. If you end up with a ballet like Swan Lake, a business like Apple, or a new theory of relativity, congratulations. But congratulate yourself just as much if what you end up with is a stream of brainstorms in the service of a fulfilling life.”

Last Word: 

For the next month, perhaps we should all adopt this attitude toward our own obsessions, whether fleeting or long-standing, but especially toward writing.  Instead of trying to conquer distractions, make it your goal to turn writing into a distraction in itself. Write about something that makes you want to sneak away at work or go to bed late. It is a gift, I think, just to feel passionate about something, anything, really. The fact that you’re reading this right now means you must have the gift too, and that makes me happy.

After this month of March writing madness, whatever it is that causes your heart to race or makes your ears perk up–building a ship in a bottle, learning a dying language, sharpening all your pencils by hand, making found art out of office supplies—whatever it is, go ahead and do it. Let it feed your writing where it will. And feel free to obsess a little. It’s good for you.

Thirty-first and final daily compost of bittersweet, grapefruit-like happiness.

What better time for a little end-of-march plot line humor?

Sweet partings fellow marchers. T’was everything I needed it to be plus some. Whether you’ve found the daily composts useful, amusing, irritatingly clever, or just irritating, I’ve enjoyed being your compost turner for all days but say, six or so. Here we are at the doorstep of April and I should sign off before I start making manure jokes.

Here’s to you and your battle-worn pen,

Your friendly neighborhood literary poop expert, Randi.

(with emergency guest composter extraordinaire, Sam)

Jour Trente: pretty close to daily compost

Having trouble finishing? Is it perhaps because it feels a little…sudden? A little ruthless? Maybe you, like Truman Capote, believe that

“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.”

Or perhaps you feel it is slightly more gentle or bittersweet, like William Feather who said that: “Finishing a book is like leaving good friend.”


Or maybe you just feel kind of done with what youre writing and you feel more like Oscar Wilde who said that

“Books are never finished, they are merely abandoned.”

(but if you take that stance…beware.)

Whatever the case, all writer’s seem to agree on at least one thing: Finish it.



Writer’s Brain, Not Writer’s Block

[By Guest Blogger Randi Beck]

According to randomly chosen sources with important sounding names, these are the 10 most frequent warning signs of early memory loss:

  1. Disrupts daily life
  2. Problems planning or problem solving
  3. Difficulty completing tasks or managing a budget.
  4. Confusion with time or place.
  5. Difficulty judging distance, contrast, or color.
  6. Problems with words in writing or speaking, not sure how to finish what one is saying.
  7. Misplacement and difficulty retracing steps.
  8. Decreased or poor judgement.
  9. Withdrawal from work or social activities.
  10. Changes in mood and personality.

Now. Read that list again and thing about writing a novel. Or a poem, essay, blog, to do list, or short story for that matter. Think about what it means to be a writer. Creepy, huh?

I’m not suggesting we’re all doomed to early onset Alzheimer’s (though it does run in my family and Sam can attest to my displaying a large number of the above “symptoms” on a daily basis.) What I’m saying is that memory is frustrating. But memory, I think, is also the writer’s golden ticket, like a shiny badge of specialness, or like a t-shirt that says “I’m with the band.” Though in this case, it would say “I’m allowed to have difficulty judging distance, contrast, and color in my characters.  I’m allowed to not be certain how to finish what I’m saying.  I’m allowed to let my characters display poor judgement. Because I’m a f*#@*ing writer, dammit.”

So where am I going with this? I forget.

Anyway, here’s my sage-spiced advice du jour:  For the writer, memory (or loss of it) means something more than a lost set of keys. It is repression, regret, remorse. It is love, panic, trauma, ecstasy. It is a temporary storage container.  Don’t think of it as forgetting, think of it as a UHaul into the next chapter of your life (or your book) where you can finally unload those memories and sort through them, and repack them, make money off of them, or attractively display them on a shelf with a doily.

These things are true of us and must be true of our characters if they are to be human beings and not paper dolls. But don’t think you have to tell the truth.  In fact, the acknowledgment that our memories may be fallacious, exaggerated, embittered with hatred, or disturbingly and unapologetically true, may tell more about the truth than the “facts.” And on the same note, let me say this before I change my mind about it’s validity:

Forgiving is not forgetting–whether it is for yourself or others.  Forgiveness is remembering, and being okay with that.

(Just a little something to put in your pocket. You can sneeze on it later if you wish, or paste it in your scrapbook.)

But enough philosophical BS. Whether you’re writing fiction, non-fiction, or experimental sonnets to be performed through interpretive dance, memory and what you have chosen to do with it or not do with it is important. For the author, for the character, for the reader. What do you remember? What do you pretend not to remember? What don’t you remember? And equally important: What will your reader remember about this thing you’ve insisted on telling them?

Tasks for today:

  1. Set alarm to wake up for morning writing.
  2. Forgive Randi Beck for late posting, but remember to use it against her later.
  3. Drink ginseng tea.
  4. Change your mind about ginseng tea. Drink coffee instead.
  5. Write in this order: Your earliest memory.  Your most recent memory. Something you wish you didn’t remember.  Discover why these things are irrevocably related to one another. Now do it for your protagonist if the protagonist is not yourself. Do it until even you believe it.
  6. Make a t-shirt that says: I’m a f*&#@ing writer

Day after 17: Your hangover compost

This compost has nothing to do with hangovers. But it was inspired by Bob’s post this morning.

Einstein and Rita Mae Brown duke it out over the legitimacy of writer’s intuition..


Einstein: Look, Rita. E equals MC squared. And also, “The only real valuable thing is intuition.”
Rita: I write mystery novels so obviously you’re wrong. As I often like to say to the mirror each morning, “Intuition is a suspension of logic due to impatience.”

Day 17: Compost O’ the Irish

The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails." 
- James Joyce

I always believed that whatever had to be written would somehow get itself written.
-Seamus Heaney

And a little brain food inspired by my hero, George Bernard Shaw: