When I was in graduate school, a friend of mine told me that anyone who survives graduate school has to be at least a little obsessive-compulsive. I think she’s right.
Certainly, my own life has been blessed—and plagued—by my ability to fall into certain projects with a single-minded focus. This ability to focus allowed me to finish a dissertation with a small child, writing in the fragments of time I had while my son slept. It helps me to finish things that I start (except, of course, for the quilt I started before my daughter was born three years ago). But it’s also means that sometimes I find myself obsessed with things at inopportune times, like the semester when I read most of Jane Austen’s novels during finals week. Or the time just after my daughter was born when I spent hours glued to the computer screen, having just discovered ebay.
Right now, I’m in the grips of a similar obsession.
Last month, I posted about my writing insecurities in the face of a writing conference. Now, although I still have occasional moments where I feel like trying to write is appalling hubris on my part, I find myself consumed by the story taking shape in my mind. I scribble notes to myself while I’m cooking; I stay up too late trying to finish one last scene; I hear my characters talking to each other in my mind while I drive the kids around town trying to run errands. My husband was out of town for a week and I actually enjoyed it—not because I didn’t miss him (I did), but because his absence meant that I could spend all of my evening hours writing, without feeling guilty for neglecting him. As recently as Saturday, I was grumpy about my husband’s decision to stay later than we’d planned at a family reunion, because the scene I was working on was calling to me. In the last month, I’ve written approximately 48,000 words (about 175 double-spaced pages), mostly at night while my children sleep. This is not necessarily all quality writing (though I hope some of it is)—it simply says something about the level of my obsession.
While I was at the writing conference, my sister told me something she’d heard Rick Walton say to a group of writers: “If you’re thinking about being a writer: don’t. Unless you can’t help yourself, and then you should try.”
When I first heard this quote, it made me question whether I was even a writer. I hadn’t felt that compulsion to write for a long time, not since I was an undergraduate more than ten years ago. (Being determined to write my dissertation was an entirely different kind of compulsion.)
Now, though, I think I have an inkling what he meant. That doesn’t necessarily make me a good writer, just a compulsive one.
I can handle these compulsions in short bursts, even if it takes me a week to put my life back in order after the whirlwind. For this particular story, I’ve set a deadline for the middle of this month and I’m happy to report that I just finished the first draft last night. Now I need to put it away to focus on other things (and get some much-needed feedback).
In the meantime, I need to find a way to sustain my interest in writing without letting it overwhelm my life. I find the balance between nurturing a passion and not succumbing to a fixation is a difficult one for me to achieve. I know that at all costs I need to avoid fixating too much, because that kind of intense focus can be damaging to my relationships, my spiritual life, even my health. Yet, how do I maintain an interest over the long term—retaining my focus without letting that focus become an exclusive one? How do you do that? Do any of you similarly struggle with obsessions? If so, what? And how do you find balance in your approach to them—how do you carve out time to do the projects that are important to you without letting those projects take over your life?