The Writer and Obsession

Here is a measure of my personal experience with obsession: once with a man, once with a story, three times involving children, once involving a sibling.

There are five things I can tell you for sure about obsession.

1. It can be fatal. That’s the nature of obsession. It consumes you.

2. It’s not a quick death. Three of my obsessions continue and have endured for decades.

3. No one around you will ever really understand. They may have their own obsessions. Or they may be the kind of people for whom obsession has no place in the pantheon of emotion. You’re on your own with obsession. It’s a deeply personal affair.

4. It is also, make no mistake, a crazy thing—agony and ecstasy whipped together.  Get the juices of desire running and a typhoon blows through your life.

Now, does your writing—maybe not the kind that pays the bills or answers to the client, but the kind that is closest to you; the kind that is you—consume you like this?

The sheer act of it, perhaps? Or a great line, or a scene rendered perfectly? Or are you obsessed with what you think you can get out of it, immortality say, or justice, or beauty?

You won’t find me encouraging obsession or equating it willy-nilly with the production of good work. You can make a hash out of anything, obsessed or not.

But, if you are obsessed or obsessive by nature, one more thing is for certain: let’s hope it’s about your work, or your work will suffer.

Because obsession is total. It owns your heart and mind completely. And whatever is not the subject of your desire becomes relegated to the category of loveless labors. Just make sure your work doesn’t end up here, and you’re good.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: two-faced figure by Shaun Wong; frustrated guy by Xpecto.

At the End of the Day

I have seen the face of heaven, and it is a fortieth high school reunion.

Forty years is a lot of river gone by. Divorce, disease, death, disappointment—there was plenty of it. But there were also the good things: the kids, the jobs, the marriages, the promotions, the fortunes, and even—the serious fortune. Some were grandparents. Many had retired. Some had careers that were still rising. One was dancing the tango in Argentina. One wants to open a B&B. One lives on the top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong. Another of us had been to see her—twice.  What had life dealt you and where are you today? The stories came, all night long.

Where’s the rabbit hole we fell into?

And yes, the former boyfriend was there too, with his wife who seemed terrific. He’s an ophthalmologist, and a good one, people said, and he just took a position at Stanford. I wondered what he could see when he looked into a person’s eyes. There was no time to ask him. His own eyes, his wife’s eyes—in fact, when you got right down to it, everyone’s eyes were killers. Especially those that peered out at you from a ruined face. Life is so arbitrary.

The bar did a business. And then there was the stage, with the microphone in heavy use at the madcap attempts at order.   There was laughter. Shock and recognition, all night long. Lipstick rubbed from cheeks. A video. A slipping out to the parking lot. A slipping back. Don’t think I didn’t see that. An impromptu madrigal experience. Notes compared on who still did music and who did not.

Some hadn’t changed even a tiny bit. And some turned out wholly different than I would have imagined. White dinner jacket? White pony tail? Wild enthusiasm for just about everything? From what wellspring do you drink, sir, and where can I find it? And yes: weep not. She loved you.

Or how about that fellow who delivered a drink to a fetching gal, napkin folded over his presenting arm like a waiter. “You know I always take care of you,” he said.

And how about the psychiatrist who pulled up a chair and listened to another’s tale of a rough time. It was so skilful. It was so kind.

There was a lot of talent in that room, a lot of compassion. “If only I had known” was a common refrain. Even the ones you might have thought, back in high school, didn’t know your name were happy to see you. Come on, sit down. Tell me all.

Oh, the half sentences. Oh, the innuendos. The things I would mull later, wishing for the chance to cross-examine.

And how about that conversation in the ladies’ room where we took score, once and for all: who had sex in high school, and who did not.

Oh, the dreams that didn’t happen. Oh, the dreams that did.

And then there was one who told me, my face in his opened palms, his darling wife not far: “I’d do anything for you.” I did not see that one coming.

Now, what can a writer learn from all this?

In the real world, people are complicated and lead rich and varied lives, with layers yet to be revealed. On the page, we must strive for the same surprising complexity in our characters.

And, what are those characters doing? What do they want?  Where’s the story? That’s what your reader seeks, why he comes around. Not for your pretty sentences. Not really for your acuity or invention. Not even for what he may learn. Most of all, end of the day, your reader wants to know what happened next.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: rabbit by Paul Beattie; Central Park statute of Alice in Wonderland by Kiki Maraschino.

Probabilities and the Written Word

I had occasion, one parents’ weekend, to attend a college math class.

The room was filled with rows of computer banks where bright-eyed students sat, in varying states of posture, but all paying attention. White boards were on opposite walls of the classroom, front to back. The professor—a lively young man—moved the discussion along at a serious clip. It was a statistics problem, a thorny thing, and he coaxed and challenged his students to come up with the answer.  Bouncing between white boards, his marker raised as if a sword, he dashed off formulas in a hasty, furious hand.

Soon, the white was slashed through with lots of black and touches of red, for emphasis, some things starred and boxed and underlined. It was so logical, so sequential. Beautiful, he insisted. His jubilance was infectious. Indeed, even I saw the beauty. As if modern art, the two white boards hung, lovely to behold and weighty with unspecific meaning.

At that moment, I envied the mathematician.

A writer doesn’t dwell a lot in percentages and probabilities. Standard deviation, sample size, mean, medium, mu . . .  ?

There just aren’t any reliable proofs that a writer can call upon in his search to arrive at a specific, beautiful truth. There is no crisp bouncing between white boards. Victory is far from assured. Ours is a chaotic, messy, insane, and reverential thing. There’s no mighty sword. Just a hand-clipper by which the writer must make his way through the South American jungle that stands between himself and his treasure.

Photo credits: math – codranknmath4, sxc; jungle – Andres Ojeda, sxc.

Mere Beauty

Capture beauty on the page and it will enliven the work.  Engage the readers’ senses with your expressive details, your moods and textures, and you’ve got him where you want him.

But give him too much of a good thing, and he will soon slow his pace and skip down the page in search of action. Make him work to remain interested, and he might even quit, bored or weary.

The problem is that mere beauty—however rich and luscious at the inception—is not enough. And a lot of it only makes the problem worse. Without some edifying or gratifying elements in return for your reader’s consumption of all that glory, descriptive passages only add volume, even bloat. Every passage has to pull its weight and not just sit there and look pretty.

Photo credits: brownie – Ilco, sxc; serving cake – Simeon Eichmann, sxc.