Preoccupation Central: How Having And Developing Obsessions Can Benefit Writers
The word “obsession” does not have the best reputation. The Marriam-Webster dictionary offers three definitions for this word. The first is, “A state in which someone thinks about someone or something constantly or frequently especially in a way that is not normal.” The potentially “abnormal” interest displayed here is likely why the term obsession often carries a strongly negative connotation. After all, a forty-year old man who is preoccupied with collecting discarded women’s underwear from dumpsters in New York City may be mentally ill as well as obsessed. Obsession is also defined as “someone or something that a person thinks about constantly or frequently” and “an activity that someone is very interested in or spends a lot of time doing.” For the sake of this article, I wish to focus more on the last two definitions of obsession and gloss over the first.
The obsessions people have are often discussed and viewed with judgment by others (and even by the person with the preoccupation). While I am, once again, not in favor of obsessions which border on the strange and troubling, I believe that developing and nurturing obsessions can be enormously helpful for writers.
This may seem counterintuitive. After all, many liberal arts colleges promote their programs on the premise it will create a well-rounded student. Students aren’t necessarily encouraged to specialize too much as an undergraduate, and, in some cases, this is perfectly appropriate. On the other hand, however, a writer who is given permission to dig deeper in order to discover what he or she is truly interested in is likely to have more self-awareness and a better grasp of how complicated and contradictory people are. Once acquired, this knowledge will help a writer fully flesh out his or her characters.
In case you remain unconvinced that developing a healthy obsession will help your writing, consider the following details:
Honore de Balzac ingested coffee the way some children ingest candy the day after Halloween: without any discernible moderation or wisdom. It is believed he would drink up to fifty cups of thick, black coffee every day. Moreover, if coffee was not available in liquid form, “he simply popped a handful of beans into his mouth and chewed.” While this thought may leave many of us wincing, this obsession doubtless shaped who he was as a writer.
Charles Dickens, when he wasn’t busy writing novels such as Hard Times or Oliver Twist, was intrigued by morgues and famous murder scenes. The latter he frequented in order to speculate how the crime may have unfolded, whereas the former he could visit for days in order to watch the workers and even the bodies being worked on. He deemed this obsession “the attraction of repulsion,” and this interest no doubt affected his work in large and small ways.
James Joyce, even more oddly, was preoccupied with the qualities of his lover Nora’s farts. In the numerous love letters he wrote to her before she became his wife, this topic is mentioned several times. Since she did marry him, perhaps she didn’t find this obsession to be as bewildering as it may seem to us today. How exactly this influenced his writing it is hard to say, but given how pervasive (and strange) this interest was, it surely influenced his writing to some degree.
Before I go any further, I must insist that having obsessions as a writer is not an excuse to ignore the needs of your children, to file your taxes months late before you were researching one of your obsessions, or to disclose unsettling information at dinner parties. While obsessions can and should shape us as writers and people, having them does not in any way excuse poor behavior.
Developing an obsession or two may not be as difficult as you believe. After all, many of us had intense interests as a child—these could range from dinosaurs to magic tricks to birds and beyond—and often these interests were neglected after a well-meaning parents commented that we should “broaden our interests” and abandoned the very topics we would much rather learn more about.
MythBusters' Adam Savage discusses his obsessions
If, for whatever reason, you cannot think of any intense interests from childhood, then you are free to start thinking about any topics you are currently interested in. Again, this will vary widely from writer to writer. The important thing is to, unless your budding obsessions are creepy and unhealthy—note again the aforementioned man in New York City looking for underwear in dumpsters—you have no reason to apologize or justify what does and does not interest you. It’s also helpful to be intensely honest with yourself so you don’t half-heartedly pursue something that you feel “should” interest you even if it clearly does not. An easy mistake for writers to make is to believe that they must be most interested only in topics directly related to what they are writing about. While it is obviously to your advantage to research the mating habits of polar bears if you are writing a children’s book about polar bears, this doesn’t mean you can’t also pursue a budding interest in World War II history at the same time.
Even for writers, who can be quite solitary, it can be helpful to find another person, even if he or she isn’t a writer, who shares your obsession. Since your spouse, children, boss, pastor, and so forth may grow tired of hearing about your new favorite topic, it’s helpful to find someone who better understands your growing preoccupation with shipwrecked pirate ships in the Caribbean.
Having an obsession is not the same as signing a lease or making a romantic commitment. In other words, there is no need to cling to an obsession if your interest starts waning. This being said, strong interests should be explored at length (if possible) before you turn your attention elsewhere. Your devoted exploration should help you determine which aspects of a topic command most of your attention. Furthermore, really digging into a new interest may help you decide which topics and obsessions should become the backbone of future stories and novels.
Which of these subjects intrigues you the most?
My childhood obsession with pirates fueled my early pirate stories, and, though I can now see that I didn’t know much about pirates at all—this was before I could look for information on the internet; and, moreover, I am not the world’s most dedicated researcher even now—these stories still resonate with my interest and curiosity in the topic. A writer’s curiosity is a muscle which needs to be exercised often. In no way am I suggesting you can’t or even shouldn’t explore a broad range of topics; however, I am suggesting that if you stumble upon a topic which fascinates you, there is likely no reason not to explore further. Over the years I’ve been preoccupied with numerous subjects ranging from pirates, gymnastics, the Appalachian Trail, and tiny homes. Despite having written virtually nothing about gymnastics, I can see how my childhood obsession with this sport helped me become who I am. Similarly, by finding and developing your own obsessions you will discover new things about who you were, are, and possibly who you are becoming. Such insights can and should be used to sketch characters who, whether through pursuing their own obsessions or otherwise, discover the multi-faceted nature of their personalities.
What are you waiting for? Find an intriguing topic or two, start digging, and let the obsessing begin.