Obsessions for Fun and Profit

(Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson in Magnificent Obsession. Here.)

I’m sorry this is a bit late. I’d planned on finishing it yesterday but life intervened.

I’m a big believer in obsessions.

Let’s be clear about what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about stalking celebrities or standing on a street corner screaming government conspiracies. My view is that a good, healthy obsession is about things that exist. Things that are real. Celebrities are essentially folklore fiction based, only in part, on actual people. Government conspiracies are fabrications derived from someone’s wish fulfillment—except those times when they aren’t, of course.

Nor am I talking about mental illness such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Though I do believe in the idea that all mental illness derives from normal brain functions gone awry. (See here for a good review.) OCD must, therefore, derive from a normal activity that has become dysfunctional. This is a fairly hopeful doctrine since it holds that there is a vast amount of common ground between the “normal” functioning brain and the not-so-normal functioning brain. Worthy of a discussion in and of itself but that is for another time.

What I mean by the word obsession is a deep and consuming interest in something that is real.

We’ve all encountered this whether it is from the odd Grandpa who collects teacups or Aunt that will repetitively talk your ear off all afternoon about the exploits of her ancestors or grandchildren. Subtracting out those who are merely using their subjects for self-aggrandizement what’s left is a coterie of people who are genuinely consumed by an interest in their subjects. Birders are a good example. Amateur astronomers are another.

For my own part, over the years I’ve been obsessed with the music of the band Yes, Hatsune Miku, kites, Johann Bach, Stirling engines, energy recovery, the nine symphonies of Beethoven, the works of James Elroy, whitewater rafting, the works of James Jones, animal cognition, consciousness, the works of JosephCampbell, the pornography industry, Parzival, physics, Missouri state history, teapots, neurophysiology, evolution and religion. Some obsessions have been over in a week or a month. Some have endured for decades—I’m just as obsessed with evolution now as I ever was.

And I talk about it. I’m one of those people who like to talk about these things rather than fuss with them in the dark and wash my hands afterwards. My wife is very patient.

It’s paid off. My obsession with Hatsune Miku resulted in the story Sudden, Broken and Unexpected, which has done quite well. (Review here.) It’s a feature of my writing that I’m always obsessed with whatever I’m writing about though I rarely talk about it while I’m writing; I’m too scared of losing steam. Maybe, for me, writing is the result of the obsession rather than the other way around.

But I find this is a very rewarding way to proceed. People often ask writers about where they get their ideas—a question to which many writers are curiously hostile. I can say pretty quickly that my ideas correlate pretty closely with my obsessions. While I haven’t yet gotten a story out of kite flying it’s only a matter of time.

There have been moments in my life where these obsessions took an unhealthy turn. Certain relationships I’d prefer not to recall leap to mind. I think, though, that for me the distinction was between obsessing about something that is real versus something fictive. Those unfortunate relationships were far more about circumstances I imagined than about what was actually there.

Further, I like having these obsessions. I enjoy delving deeply into something beyond all rational bounds. It’s fun to look at how Japanese teapots changed over time or trying (and failing) to build Stirling engines or listening to a piece of music over and over and over again until the bones of it come clear.  Not so easy on the people around you but that’s where the choice of life partners and friends becomes really important.

Science is in part obsession in harness. After all, scientists often pursue minute details for years, teasing out profound conclusions from the thinnest of data. Consider how long Darwin studied barnacles. Or Cowan and Reines studies of neutrinos. Implementing software is a breeze by comparison. You get feedback relatively quickly in minutes, hours or days. But some experiments take weeks to set up or years to resolve.

So is writing. Imagine a year or two writing about characters, learning about them and their world, imagining what they’re going through and who they know, how things happened to them and where they’ll end up. I find myself watching them (in my head. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.) for hours. Listening to their conversations. Changing the staging for this scene or that and seeing what the characters do. Getting it down on paper, tweaking it and getting it down again. Think about it. Sound familiar?

The critical feature is the subject matter. Spending an inordinate amount of time learning about and imagining how a female FBI agent might operate and what stresses she might be under is one thing. Spending that same amount of time and emotional energy dwelling on the love of Jodie Foster is quite another.

But with the right subject matter, the proper cultivation and time and boring your loved ones just the right amount an obsession can truly bloom into something worthwhile. A novel maybe. Or perhaps just a collection of teapots.




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