“Obsession produces a book. You get up with it every morning and go to bed with it every night. (No, it’s not that new mattress you found after concluding whether the koala vs ecosa mattress would be the best one for you). You keep a pad next to the bed so when you wake up in the middle of the night you can write things down, or a pad inside your jacket so when you’re at dinner you can pull it out, and suddenly you’re not part of the conversation anymore.”
That’s according to David Denby, the film critic for The New Yorker Magazine, in a recent profile that appeared in Publishers Weekly. He’s also the author of the national bestseller Great Books, and the follow up title Lit Up, which chronicles twenty-four books that can change lives. So Denby takes writing seriously and does a lot of it.
“You can’t write unless you’re obsessed, Denby says. “It’s a state of blessedness, in the sense that you’re lucky to do it, and a state of illness, because you’re not a normal person.”
Does that describe you?
As a developmental editor who’s worked with many dedicated writers from superstars to those just getting started, I can confirm that many authors are indeed what Denby describes with hyperbolic flair as “serial obsessives”. They live in two parallel worlds: their internal creative process and whatever is going on around them.
Is it obsession or self-discipline?
I’m impressed with writers who are focused on facing the blank screen and getting out the pages. It’s hard to do while having relationships, earning a living, being a parent, facing unexpected setbacks and hardships. But they do it.
Here are some recent examples from writers I know. Details have been altered to protect their privacy.
• A single mother with two boys aged four and two years old who gets up every morning at 5am while they’re still sleeping to write for two hours on her first novel, then makes her kids breakfast, takes them to childcare, and rushes off to her job at the library until two pm when she has to pick them up.
• A 53-year-old graphic designer, who uses his lunch hour to produce without fail, every day, no less than three decent pages of his biography of the 19th century French caricaturist Honore Daumier. He’s already written a detailed outline and has a calendar on his iPhone that schedules precisely when he’ll be done this coming July.
• A 93-year-old writer who wrote several bestselling novels in her early thirties but since then has struggled to sustain that level of success. Recent work has been rejected by her former prestigious publishing house, but dauntless, she’s just finished a brand new novel and is looking for a hungry young literary agent.
• A 26-year-old man with muscular dystrophy who’s confined to a wheel chair. Despite his progressively weakening musculoskeletal system, he works slowly and surely through his memoir, which he hopes will inspire other victims of M.S. to keep going as best they can in the hope that one of many potential new treatments will extend their lives. His prognosis is uncertain but he’s nearly finished with a first draft.
Not all writers face these kinds of obstacles. Many authors I’m working with have well-organized lives that permit regular hours every day to pursue their literary goals. I can attest, however, that the determination, intensity of focus, life distractions avoided, and emails I’ve received at all hours of the day and night, is a testament to this kind of admirable self-discipline.
The payoff, big time
It’s all worth it when you final hold the finished copy in your hand, Denby says. He especially loves the heft and feel of a book, running fingers backward and forward in it, saying ‘This is mine, a little piece of my soul.’
What about you?
Are you obsessed with your writing? How would you describe your own work ethic? We welcome your comments and personal experiences.
Peter Long says
Hi Alan, thank you for your sharing. The most important thing in writing is persistence and inspiration.
yes I want to write poems I think I need a pulisher
shamim adam says
I think the word ‘obsessed’ has a negative connotation bordering on ‘crazy’. For instance, a person obsessed with cleaning can’t think rationality to know that cleaning is overtaking his/her life. So, in terms of writing, healthy boundaries improve quality of writing which makes one a better writer. Here, I am giving my personal perspective.
Maria Hanninen says
Good post which also describes me ! I am currently writing my memoirs
SHARE THE MOON : One Girl One Moon Three Tribes
on blogspot and publishing a new update every Sunday. It’s my hobby atm, I already have a great day job , and the inspiration to write just flows in just as you describe even at the most importune of moments. Instead of a notepad I am attached to my phone. Welcome to drop by my blog. Newest post every Sunday ! http://share-the-moon.blogspot.fi/
Hours, turned to days now. My thoughts and ideas flood my mind and i’m urged to relieve the pressure by writing them out. When I’ve spent too much time writing away, suddenly become stuck, unable to finish a sentence. I’ll sit, muddled at my keyboard or paper pad. My thoughts become too ordinary or cliche and just to keep up my momentum, I’ll write them down, but I become dissatisfied altogether. I end up discarding the whole piece, leaving it to be unfinished.
My family is watching me waste away, disconnected from the whole world. They attempt to break my focus to take a break. I comply to there requests, but at the same time throwing a tantrum, frustrated and feeling defeated.
Kathy Steinemann says
I write almost every day.
Some family members don’t understand that it’s a job–even though I don’t leave the house. But everyone is used to the faraway look I get when an idea hits me, and they chuckle when I text myself the latest inspiration. Sometimes they squirm, wondering if they just said or did something that will show up in my next story. Their reactions are often worth ten episodes of Big Bang Theory.
W. M. Raebeck says
I find it offensive these days with so many ‘writers’ blogging about ‘trying to write.’ Bus drivers drive, bakers bake, drunks drink, writers write. I don’t now why I’m bothered by people trying so hard to be writers and laboring to figure out what to write…but it just seems fake. If you’re not MOTIVATED to write, don’t do it! For a real writer, the problem isn’t getting stuff down, it’s how to somehow STOP being a writer.
I just wanted to connect with you, Alan, because you seem like the real deal, and maybe I’ll approach you with a book one of these days… Got a few more in the works.
Thanks for your commentary, and I look forward to being on your email list.
Michael LaRocca says
Sorry, I can’t fix your toilet today. I have plumber’s block.
Michael LaRocca says
It’s been my experience that obsession is the only thing that produces a book. If I’m going to spend at least a year with it, I’d better be obsessed. Otherwise I’ll stop before I’m done and/or create something that bores both reader and writer.