The Virtue of Obsession

The creative habit is like a drug. The particular obsession changes, but the excitement, the thrill of your creation lasts.

 The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for the rest of your life. And the most important thing is, it must be something you cannot possibly do.

 I think in terms of the day’s resolutions, not the years’.

-Henry Moore

I received an email recently from a local publicist who interviewed me about the book I am writing. How is it coming along? Would you like to come back when it is finished? She asked.

I was gearing up for a marathon writing session anyhow, but her inquiry was just the push I needed into creative obsession. The initial interview took place early this summer, and for the rest of the summer, I wrote at a snail’s pace. I had all kinds of excuses. But today there is this magical lull. Things are quiet. Nothing else is pulling at my attention. My family is happy and healthy and self-sufficient. No big holidays are bearing down on me yet. There is nowhere I have to be. I know things can change in a heartbeat, a phone call, a minute. For now, endless possibility.

There is no time like the present to obsess over my creative project and make some rapid progress, so I am jumping right in. To hell with balance. Thomas Edison did not invent the lightbulb by having balance. He obsessed. Obsession gets things done. I’ve eaten the same thing for the past five meals. It’s healthy and delicious so the sameness doesn’t bother me in the least. It’s way easier to obsess when you keep everything else simple. The only things I’m requiring of myself are drinking water and getting some exercise. Is it possible that I really don’t have to think about anything else? For this moment in time, a writer’s dream. I’m taking it.

More than education, intelligence or ability, sticking to something, believing you can accomplish it, and then applying a single minded focus to your goal- in short, tenacity- is key. So there you have it. Two glorious days, maybe more, heck, maybe a week, to obsess, live like a recluse, and focus on nothing else but the words in front of me. I’m even putting off my haircut, because let’s face it, even benign social interaction can dilute the creative process.

No room for fearful or negative thoughts, either. Will I finish? What if this book never makes it out of the slush pile? What if I piss someone off? Worries be gone. They are mind clutter, distractions, and excuses. The luxury of these days, to think of almost nothing else- to do almost nothing else- is liberating! It’s exhilarating. It’s passion. It’s giving the proverbial finger to all the stuff of life that is really okay left undone, at least for the time being. To put a creative project front and center, to make one’s thing the only thing, even for a short time, is a beautiful moment.

Choices, choices everywhere

I have so many topics that I want to write about that I’ve avoided focusing on just one. Sitting down to write a post means having to choose what to write about, and my mind has been swimming with too many ideas. I write down the subject matters as they come to me, keeping a list, but usually one topic of the other will come to the forefront. But lately they are all there, eager for my attention like a classroom full of raised hands waving wildly. “Pick me, pick me” each topic seems to call out, so I pick none.

I only want one at a time.   Choices are good, but too many are overwhelming and can dilute the experience of the one thing. I once worked with a woman who told me she always bought her clothes at the same store because otherwise there would be too many choices to make. One store! All of her clothes. That’s how she simplified her shopping issues. 2014-09-19 11.09.25

I recently traveled to the San Francisco area and was struck by the beauty, the vastness and the farms at the ocean’s edge, south of the city.  Every time I go somewhere new or even just read about it, I wonder what it would be like to live there. There are so many different choices that I occasionally wonder if I am missing out on all the ones I didn’t pick. I don’t just want to see different places; I want to settle in. I want to live there, a lifetime in each place. But I don’t want to leave where I am. I’ve heard it said that you can live far or you can live deep. I want both. I want to live deep but in several different places, and all without actually leaving my current home. Impossible.  Alas, we all have to choose.

Upon returning from this California trip, I went to my high school reunion. I grew up just one town over from where I live now.  Most of my husband’s and my family members live within an hour from us. Our roots are here. Our children are here. I love New England. I can go to the ocean, mountains, or city all within an easy drive. I love my state. I love most of our seasons. In the winters though, I find myself dreaming of Arizona, California, New Mexico, and the Carolinas.

Family, roots, circumstances and practicality have all kept me where I am, and that’s probably a good thing. Who knows, indulging that little bit of gypsy or curiosity or whatever it is may have made me feel ungrounded or displaced.  Maybe visiting places when the opportunity arises is the way to go, at least for now and maybe forever. Like the woman who shops for clothes in just one store, there is something to be said for narrowing our choices about some things. Maybe where we live is simply a minor detail of life and how we live is what really counts.

*Please feel free to request a topic on simplifying. Knowing what readers want is helpful in narrowing down the choices!

Bare Bones: choosing what’s essential in writing and in life

Bare Bones: The basic elements or essentials

MAINE 2011 008I had a 1600 word essay that I wanted to turn into a 1000 word essay in order for it to fit into a specific magazine. Cutting out more than a third of a piece of writing may sound a bit daunting to some, but I loved the challenge of this. It took me a fair amount of time and effort for sure, but I really, really wanted this piece in this particular publication, so it was well worth it. The fun of it was that I had to make every word count. I don’t always do this in my writing, so it was good practice. I had to cut large chunks out of the essay, parts that I originally thought belonged there. Thirty eight percent of the essay had to go, to be exact. I cut out words, then whole paragraphs, picking and choosing what could be sacrificed, what was essential and what was just fluff. In other words, I had to get down to the bare bones and this required deciding: what are the bare bones? What is essential?

And this is what I love about simplifying. It’s a creative privilege, a designing of one’s own life, getting to decide what to keep and what to get rid of. It’s something I have not mastered, and will not ever truly master. Ah, but the lofty goal, the striving toward, no matter how many times I fall short, makes me happy. To only keep what we use or love, buy what we need; to only think about what serves us well and only eat what is good for us. To only say what we mean. What simply amazing results this could all have.

This paring down of the essay was something I could do, completely and successfully. I had a definite limit- 1000 words- and the result I was going for was clear-to have this piece published. It was work and art and love and simplifying, all for a useful purpose. To write what I mean and mean what I write.

When I was finished, although there were parts missing, left unsaid, I realized that I actually liked it better than before. What I had originally thought was essential, wasn’t. It was shorter, more concise and somehow a bit more powerful, in my opinion. I haven’t heard from the editor yet, so I can’t truly claim victory over this task, but I am satisfied. I did the best I could, and said the most I can say with the fewest number of words.

Which reminds me of a line I recently read on Theo Pauline Nestor’s blog. She quoted Vivian Gornick, regarding writing memoir: ‘ It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.’

Living is art, and we get to pick what our bare bones are. When the essential gets buried in too much fluff, we have to go digging to find it. And when we strive to keep the essential front and center, dusted off and cared for, unencumbered by the extraneous, that is its own reward.