Natalie Goldberg has said “Writers end up writing about their obsessions. Things that haunt them; things they can’t forget; stories they carry in their bodies waiting to be released.” And this is a vital part of being a writer. We must be obsessed with something, or we will have nothing to fuel the fires of our writing engines. We must continually feed our imaginations, even if we cannot see the steam it will produce until much later.
This is why writers must read. Read books that give you pleasure. Read about things you want to learn more about. Read other writers discuss teh always mysterious craft of writing (because it’s different for every single one of us). Read books in the field you want to publish in so you know what is getting sold, but also because you will be inspired by the ones that grab you to keep writing. Read, read, read. It is one of the most vital things you can do besides writing.
Yet reading is not the only form of input; there are others. For instance, I’m not one of these ascetic writers that scoffs at owning a TV. I love watching the development of characters I have come to love and cry right alongside of them at their wins or losses. I also love film (which should really be no great surprise if one knows that I used to write movie reviews). Just last night I watched a film, “Words and Pictures,” that left me riveted at moments in its frank discussion of writing and art, as well as watching these two wonderful characters brought to life by two wonderful actors. I have been the one in love with words and writing, but I have also been the one left gasping at the beauty found in an exquisite piece of art. I have traveled the museums and libraries of the world consuming the greatness of generations before me simply for the pleasure of it. Because again, art takes many forms, and so does inspiration. I’ve written poems and short stories based on paintings. I’ve seen films that have left me gaping in awe at their beauty and inspired me to continue writing. It is all very circular, this beast of inspiration.
But obsession takes many forms. There are things that will always draw me to them, even though they are not in a book, or a painting, or a film. I am obsessed with the ocean and almost all it contains. I love to travel and fall in love repeatedly with places I visit. My obsession with Hawaii and Hawaiian fish has produced at least two picture books so far, and perhaps more to come. My last trip renewed my passion for tea. I’ve always been more of a tea drinker than a coffee drinker (and I have no idea how that evolved). I’ve become obsessed with a Canadian tea company and try to convince all I know to drink their teas. I love walking in the woods. I love the first snowfall of winter. I love mermaids and England and fairy tales and the Pre-Raphaelite painters and poetry. Some obsessions are lifelong. Some come along when I learn something new and it just so happens to fascinate me for no reason I can quite explain. These are the things, the moments that can create great works of art.
However, it is also really easy to let our obessions take me away from the act of writing as well. It is easy to let research for a story become a form of procrastination, especially when the subject is so very fascinating. It is easy to binge watch an entire season of a newly discovered television show in a weekend, letting it eat up every waking hour. It is easy to let any little moment or thing that life hands me as a distraction and take me away from the written page.
Anne Lamott in her book “Bird by Bird” talks about focusing on small things. She relates a story of her brother being overwhelmed by a school project on birds and her dad’s comment to just write it bird by bird. When I first read that, I felt the power of what she was saying, about focusing on the small things in our writing, about focusing on the little things we notice, and on our little obsessions. I created a little picture frame of my own (like one she had and used as a reminder) out of popsicle sticks that I painted and drew little rulers on (1 inch by 1 inch) and I glued a little ladybug (one of my obsessions at the time) button in a corner of the picture frame to remind myself that it’s okay to have obsessions and take time for the little things. There is a picture of it below. BUT (and this was my own interpretation), I needed to also keep those obsessions to a small window. I couldn’t let them rob me of actually taking time to write.
I have been forcing myself to sit and write every day this summer. I’m working on my little projects, my stories based on obsessions (some that require research) and I’m producing. I can’t remember which writer talked about tying himself to the chair and not getting up until he’d written, but it is something akin to that. And again, I look at the quote on a sticky note on my writing wall from Susan Shaughnessy about writer’s resistance being persistent so we have to be so too. I must continue to do this every day to keep the wheels greased and turning and moving forward. And I’m terrified that I won’t be able to keep this progress going during the school year when I teach.
But again, Anne Lamott reminds me that it doesn’t take much to write every day: “Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry. That is all we are going to do for now. We are just going to take this bird by bird. But we are going to finish this one short assignment.” It doesn’t have to be a whole story every day. It doesn’t have to be a word limit (1500 words a day, etc.). I just need to be meeting the page and writing something, anything, every. single. day. That I can do. Baby steps, small windows. Every day.