44.2 Feature: Craft Essay by Samantha Edmonds
Samantha Edmonds‘ fiction and nonfiction appears in Day One, Pleiades, Indiana Review, the Ploughshares blog, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, among others. She currently lives in Knoxville, where she’s an MFA candidate at the University of Tennessee. Visit her online at: www.samanthaedmonds.com
by Samantha Edmonds
I’m a pretty obsessive person by nature—ask anyone who knew me at eleven, when everything from my pillowcase to my school folders were sporting the skull-and-crossbones logo from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies—and so perhaps it comes as no surprise that I’m attracted to the idea of “productive obsessions” when it comes to making art. An obsessive place, a compulsion or thought I feel unable to let go, is where stories must always start for me. Before form, narrative engine, lyrical voice and genre hybridity, there must first be obsession.
Eric Maisel writes extensively about productive, or positive, obsessions, which he distinguishes from unwanted negative obsessions rooted in anxiety by explaining that positive obsessions are all about intent – the desire to obsess. He defines positive obsessions as “insistent, recurrent thoughts…that compel one to act, and that connect to one’s goals and values as an active meaning-maker and authentic human being.” Obsessions have too long been perceived as a strictly negative condition, which Maisel suggests is the reason so many writers quit projects shortly after beginning them; artists are afraid of becoming “too engrossed in something” for fear of the stigma against the idea of obsession.
And though there are certainly unwanted obsessions that are dangerous and disastrous, those are not the kind of passions-turned-positive-obsessions that Maisel is referring to or that I strive to find in my own work. By its very definition (“insistent, recurrent”), quitting is not in the nature of obsession –a quality which problematizes an unwanted obsession but gives great value to a positive one.
When Octavia Butler was struggling to get published, she began to question herself and her writing. In an essay on positive obsession she asks herself why she was trying to make a career out of writing: Just what did she even think she was doing? “Whatever it was,” she writes, “I couldn’t stop. Positive obsession is about not being able to stop just because you’re afraid and full of doubts. Positive obsession is dangerous. It’s about not being able to stop at all.”
So be obsessed.
In particular, I am drawn to the idea of using my obsessions to create. I’m more interested in Butler’s space obsession (the second book she ever bought for herself, according to the same essay, described stars and planets) than I am in her writing one. Sure, to be a writer it helps to feel compelled to write. But what I really want to know is: How did an obsession with comets and asteroids lend itself to her creating stories of her own?
My favorite line in The Voyager Record: A Transmission by Anthony Michael Morena comes from the acknowledgments page, when he thanks someone in his life for encouraging him to “write about what obsessed him.” A combination of poetry, flash essays, and short facts documenting the history of the golden Voyager Record, the book is eclectic and electric and, in traditional terms, not much of a story at all. It shouldn’t work, but born as it is from something so alive as an obsession—an obsession not with writing but with an object as strange and wonderful as a record of humanity sent into the stars—the book excels. It has heart and passion and yearning—vital components to obsessions and stories both.
So be obsessed. Not just with writing, but with things.
My story-in-vignettes, “The Space Poet,” appearing in issue 44.2 of Black Warrior Review, came from such an obsession. I wrote the pieces in no particular order, not thinking about story, just thinking that I had spent the winter watching too much of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos and following dozens of astronauts on Twitter. I didn’t have a plot and I didn’t write any traditional scenes, but I had read a lot about the International Space Station and I wanted to talk about it—I had learned things I couldn’t stop thinking about—I had a lot of questions—I had a lot of bone-deep aching—in other words: obsessions. So I sat down and wrote. More than a “positive obsession,” it seemed I had also stumbled into a generative one.
It’s always been pretty easy for me to latch onto something and get way too invested, and in the past I’ve often tried to do that less (obsessions are exhausting, time-consuming, sometimes expensive, frequently isolating); but since I’ve started thinking about generative obsession as a writing technique, I’ve gone out of my way to cultivate obsessions because any one of them could get a story off the ground. Especially if that obsession leads to discovering a ritual or habit for a character to have, an unsettled place for them to explore, a subject matter for them to ponder–or anything else that might reveal, as my professor once said all stories should, a little more about what it means to be a human being right now on planet Earth.
I can’t say with finality what makes something a generative obsession rather than a regular one. I write about space because I’m hypnotized by it. But I’m also deeply passionate about animals and haven’t (yet) found a way to write stories about them. Is there a fundamental difference in those two obsessions, so that one has proven generative and the other has not? Maybe it’s because space started out as an interest but I decided to turn it into a project; perhaps it’s all about intention. Non-generative obsessions happen to you. You meet generative ones at the door and invite them in. “Cultivate” implies purpose.
Or maybe it’s only a matter of time before that obsession generates something too. Maybe all obsessions have the power to become generative, given enough time to germinate and grow. I don’t always start writing about an obsession right away—sometimes I have to sit with the subject first and see what will happen. Maybe something moves; maybe not. Either way, I believe deeply in the success of writing via exploration, using a subject that compels and arrests you, even if you don’t have anything else—plot, scene, whatever—figured out yet. To trust that because of your obsession, the writing will have heart and life enough for story to follow: To me, that is a perfectly simple and tremendously hopeful approach.