Obsession is the Secret to Writing Well
Be faithful to your obsessions. Let them guide you like a sleepwalker. — JG Ballard
I was in my late teens and didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d already “tried” university — studying literature— but found myself distracted and uninvolved, so I pulled out after just a term, drifting from one temporary job to another, confused and upset that I’d been a bad fit for a degree I thought I’d love. I read books, I loved books — and I even had a few favourites — but I read haphazardly, picking up this and that, trying one thing after another. I felt like I’d come to literature late, having spent years of adolescence barely reading, and needed to ‘catch up’ by sampling the canon. I wanted to write, too, but I had no discipline — only the desire for it to be easy.
Suddenly I had to read everything of his I could get my hands on.
What happened between then and my next (successful) attempt at university, two years later, was that I god obsessed. My boyfriend bought me Nabokov’s short stories, and I followed with Ada or Ardor and Pale Fire. Suddenly I had to read everything of his I could get my hands on. After the novels, interviews, lectures, and poems, I turned to biographies, then literary criticism. Via my boyfriend’s university library, I accessed journal articles. I shouted out loud when I noticed errors, or disagreed with an analysis — in other words, Nabokov became mine. And of course I then had to read what Nabokov read: Tolstoy, Pushkin, Dostoevsky…(okay, so he didn’t think much of the latter: “He was a prophet, a claptrap journalist and a slapdash comedian.”), but part of the intense enjoyment of reading Nabokov was just how gloriously dismissive, curmudgeonly, and unabashedly self-regarding he was. He might have died in 1979, but his voice was so distinct that I could imagine the kind of opinions he might have ventured on almost any contemporary writer.
Obsession is a way of knowing the world more deeply: of getting down to the nuts and bolts.
I was obsessed with Nabokov — and until then I’d never learnt so much, so quickly, about literature. I don’t think it is coincidental that Nabokov is also a writer of obsession: I’m sure that part of the devotion he was able to inspire in me can be attributed to the way he explores this subject, over and over:
I think many of my characters have sudden obsessions, different kinds of obsessions. — Nabokov, 1962
There are the pathological obsessions (the most obvious being Humbert Humbert’s for Lolita; or Kinbote for the poet John Shade in Pale Fire), but obsession itself is a broader theme and an approach: a way of being and exploring the world. Nabokov himself was famously a lepidopterist, and he connected his obsession with butterflies to writing:
As an artist and a scholar, I prefer the specific detail to the generalization, images to ideas, obscure facts to clear symbols, and the discovered wild fruit to the synthetic jam. — Nabokov
Obsession is a way of knowing the world more deeply: of getting down to the nuts and bolts. The aim is not to comprehend totally, in order to master the object of obsession, but to experience the pleasure of reality — to approach its mystery. The following extract is worth quoting in full, because Nabokov expresses this so beautifully:
Reality is a very subjective affair. I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and as specialization. If we take a lily, for instance, or any other kind of natural object, a lily is more real to a naturalist than it is to an ordinary person. But it is still more real to a botanist. And yet another stage of reality is reached with that botanist who is a specialist in lilies. You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable. You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing: it’s hopeless. So that we live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects — that machine, there, for instance. It’s a complete ghost to me — I don’t understand a thing about it and, well, it’s a mystery to me, as much of a mystery as it would be to Lord Byron. — Nabokov
Obsession gets a bad rap. For good reason, we’re told to temper our emotions, to restrain ourselves — to stop ourselves getting carried away. Popular psychology tells us that obsession is the route to misery, to losing ourselves, and that in pursuing an object of desire, we cause untold misery to those around us. Literature is full of those who fall foul of monomania — the “excessive concentration on a single object or idea” (according to Merriam-Webster dictionary). Think of Ahab’s deranged search for Moby Dick; or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, who destroys herself for her love of the charming and fickle Vronsky; or perhaps Don Quixote, so obsessed with chivalrous deeds that he manufactures reasons to fight against those who have done him no wrong (including some windmills, which he mistakes for giants).
We need to become devoted, obsessive readers. We need to become super-fans.
Where writing is concerned, this is precisely the quality we need to encourage in ourselves (not, I’d hasten to add, as a fetish, and at the expense of those around us: don’t sell your family car to buy a first edition). We need to find writers we can identify with, trust, yet whose mastery of language and ability to awaken feeling in us arouses the most intense, helpless curiosity.
It doesn’t matter if the writer died 50 or 100 years ago — in fact, this is ideal. We won’t have to wait for their next book to come out — it’s all there, along with (hopefully) the years of criticism and biographical research which have sprung up since. And we’re less likely to deflect our obsession from the work itself to the person (what I’m saying here is: don’t bombard a living writer with messages of your undying love!).
We need to become devoted, obsessive readers. We need to become super-fans. We need to stop skimming; stop being so random; stop looking to books as a way of ‘gauging the market’; stop analysing bestseller lists; stop reading just to conclude that ‘we could do it better’. Instead, we need to find a writer who astonishes us: how did they do it, and we need to apprentice ourselves to them as devoted readers. We need to work in service to our wonder. We might not become renowned experts — we may even change our minds about a writer later — but in the process we might become experts of our own desires. I think this is what the writer JG Ballard means when he urges us to be “faithful to [our] obsessions”: they teach us about ourselves — our psyches — and they teach us to get interested in reality — to really pay attention.