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.
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:
His 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.”
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.