Get Obsessed with Your Story
In July, I attended the LA Summer Conference of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). There were some fantastic takeaways from that weekend, and if you want to write for children of any age then you should definitely look into a SCBWI membership, but something Sean Qualls said in his keynote speech has really been resonating with me:
"Allow yourself to become obsessed."
Sean's story was that he struggled a lot becoming an artist because he was caught up in imitating the technical styles of art around him, seeing them as superior to the style of his own doodles. It was only when he allowed himself to become obsessed with reproducing the beauty he saw around him, in his own style, that he started seeing success in his artist career.
Sean is now an award-winning illustrator and artist. His story resonates with me because it seemed like he did all the right things: went to school to study art, learned from the Greats in his field, made his art all the time, submitted his work for publication. But it didn't matter. In his presentation, he showed us the work he was turning in and though it was visually and technically beautiful, it did not have any heart.
If you look at his work now (see above), you get an entirely different feel. His illustrations are springing with life and his unique perspective of the world. No one could create art exactly like Sean, even if they copied his style, because they are not Sean. We each have to follow our own Obsession to create our art.
[Note: By "obsession" in this instance, Sean Qualls and I are using the Merriam-Webster broad definition of a "compelling motivation," not the specific definition of "a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling," as is often felt by those with OCD. OCD is a serious mental health disorder and I would encourage everyone to research and understand it better is so that we do not use terms like "OCD" when we instead intend the broad definition of "obsession." For more information on OCD, please click here.]
Qualls' recommendation to allow yourself to become obsessed with your art resonated with me because, for many years, I have been denying myself access to books and writing in order to make sure I do the things that seemed more necessary at the time: eating, studying, spending time with family and friends, etc. I knew that I couldn't do those things if I picked up a really good book, or started actually writing that novel idea instead of just making notes on it. For I, like many people in the world, can easily become obsessed by a new and exciting thing.
When one becomes obsessed with something, it's like nothing else in the world matters while you're caught up in that thing. I first experienced this phenomenon at 6 years old when my mother began reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to me every night. It was agony not being able to yet read the delicious book myself, and I often got my mom to read just one more chapter more every night. We finished it quickly and from then on, I was obsessed with books.
As I grew older and could read for myself, I would disappear into books entirely, stay up into the small hours of the morning reading any book at all, and crave a new book as soon as the last one finished. My family complained of not seeing me or my inattention. It became a sore spot in my relationship with my little brother and to this day I fear that he refuses to read books because of the negative impression he got from them as a young child wishing only for the attention of his sibling, and being denied it.
For these reasons, I have for a long time considered my obsessive love of reading and writing to be a problem--something that tears me away from the real world and alienates those I love. I have refused to pick up a new book or start a new show when I know I have an important deadline or family event coming up. I have consistently put my writing time at the end of my day to make sure I get all the little things like eating and cleaning taken care of first. This may be a good way to go on living in the world, but it is not the way to become a successful author.
As French author Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (better known as George Sand) said:
“The trade of authorship is a violent, and indestructible obsession.”
In order to be truly successful at our craft, we must show up every day, ready to bleed on the page and tear out our own hearts to present at the feet of critics and adorators alike. This is what we are told by authors distributing advice in lectures, readings, and craft books, but it is difficult advice to follow. Different authors recommend different amounts of time, words, or pages to ensure success in our craft, yet many of us have full time jobs, partners, children, or other daily responsibilities which make it difficult or even impossible to set up a regular routine.
As James Patrick Kelly said during my first residency at my MFA program: "Writing every day is a luxury of the rich," and we should therefore not feel bad about falling off the schedule sometimes. Kelly has won multiple Hugo Awards for his short stories and recently came out with a new novel, Mother Go (easily accessible for dyslexic-types on Audible!), yet in this seminar on finding success, Kelly stressed that he was extremely lucky to have had a well-paid partner to support him while he was a stay-at-home dad and budding writer for many years. It takes a long time to become a successful author and "make it pay." In the meantime, we have bills and responsibilities.
So what's the answer here?
I believe the answer lies in allowing yourself to become obsessed. Only then can you be sure to do the writing that you love, whenever and wherever you have time for it in real life! Yes, you have a lot to do, and yes, those things need to be given priority sometimes, but as Steven Pressfield says in his brilliant book The War of Art:
“You must know the difference between what is urgent and what is important, and you must do what’s important first.”
It may sometimes feel impossible to get in time to write, read, and research for your writing life, but it is not. It is difficult to know when to put off laundry one more day so that you can get that chapter down that's been rattling around inside your head, but it is impossible to set aside laundry in order to stare at an empty screen for an hour because you no idea where your characters are now, physically, emotionally, or thematically. This is why so many authors recommend having a daily writing habit, so that it is easier to jump back into the story and keep the ball rolling towards the finish line.
I have another suggestion to keep that ball rolling: OBSESSION. If you allow yourself to become absolutely obsessed with your story, then even if you have to take a few days off to shop for groceries, take your kid to the doctor, or go home for a weekend visit with friends and family, you will be itching to get back to your characters as soon as possible and know exactly where you left off. While you're at that family outing, or standing in line at a register, or talking to a friend over drinks, your obsessed mind will look like this:
No matter how much time you've taken off, your obsession will help you get your butt back in the chair and your fingers back on the keys, typing busily away. Even better, your obsession will ensure that you really do love the story you are working on. Like Sean Qualls, you will be creating art that really speaks to you and that you really care about, otherwise you would not have been able to become obsessed with it. Obsession is therefore a timer and a compass, telling you when to write and whether you should be writing this story at all.
Therefore, find your obsession, and your creative success will follow.
Life is all about balance, and the creative life even more so. The first book on craft I ever read--The Novel Writer's Toolkit by Bob Mayer--said something I will never forget about the road to becoming a successful author:
"Read a lot... and live a lot."
To this, I would only add, "And write a lot... obsessively so." Allow yourself to become obsessed with your craft, your story, your writer's life, and you will find it nigh on impossible to neglect the things most important to you. What are your thoughts on creative obsessions over stories, in books, movies, TV, or your own work in progress? Try becoming obsessed with your writing for a week, a month, or a year, and let us know how it goes!