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Obsessions

By Rosalyn Eves

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?

About Rosalyn Eves

(Prose Board) currently lives in Southern Utah with her husband and three small children, where she teaches writing part-time at the local university. She has a BA in English from BYU, and an MA and PhD (also in English) from Penn State. In her spare time (what's that?) she likes to read, write, try new recipes (as long as she doesn't have to clean up), watch movies with her husband (British period drama is her favorite), go for walks, and generally avoid anything that resembles housework. Her first novel comes out Spring 2017 from Knopf.

6 thoughts on “Obsessions”

  1. As an editor, I like to joke that it's a way for me to channel my borderline OCD in a socially acceptable way. I know exactly what you mean. I sometimes find myself meaning to leave the office at 5:30, only to still find myself here at 8 or 9, working on a project that I *have* to finish, but that really could wait until tomorrow for me to continue on it. And I get burnt out sometimes doing it. In this case, thankfully I'm single, so the only person who suffers for it is me in a lack of social life and/or down time. Or dirty laundry and a piled-up sink, really.

    If you know Rick, are you also a children's book writer? Because there are a lot of Mormon women who write for children and young adults who have excellent advice on these things. Shannon Hale got someone to come in to her house to watch her small children a couple hours a day so she could carve out writing time. Every other hour of the day is non-writing time–time devoted to her family and other important matters. Sometimes I think that strict delineation is important for continued motivation for writers–stop wherever you are at the appointed time, and you'll be excited to get back to it.

    For me, most days at work I have to *make* myself leave no later than 6 or 6:30 p.m., even if there's something pressing–unless I'm under deadline the following day, which is a rare occurrence. If I make myself concentrate while AT work, as well–not allowing myself more than a few minutes a couple times a day on the internet–I'm able to focus on work for longer periods of time and then leaving doesn't make me feel so guilty. I'll always feel a little guilty, because publishing work never ends, but I have to tell myself it'll still be there tomorrow.

    Of course, that's not *exactly* the same situation you're in. But that's how I deal with it.

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  2. Oh, it would be so easy to slip into one or seven comfortable obsessions! I have a mental list of things I will do when [insert timeframe/deadline/calendar year here] – and try to stick to that, because I know I do tend to lapse into slightly obsessive territory.

    Like my linen cupboard. If I focus on it, making sure it's the gorgeous testament of order and straight edges, my relationship with my sons suffers and I just don't like myself very much. Now I've broken that mental twitching (which did take effort!) as long as the door is shut I don't care what it looks like in there. It's no longer how I measure my "success" as a homemaker, it's just a cupboard.

    The difficulty I'm having at the moment is not writing. I go to sleep thinking of how to order that sentence, which paragraph is going to flow into the next, I wake up chewing on what I'm going to blog about next… but right now, I have work, and my sons, and uni, and if I was to sit down and write for that hour or two (as much as I want and need to), I'd be shortchanging my study or my sleep. So I tell myself on the weekend I will, and it will be my treat to myself, even if it's as messy as a flopped pavlova.

    That being said, if something were to happen, that I needed to write about immediately, I would – sometimes balance just isn't possible, or sensible, you just need to get it out before you are consumed or explode.

    So… no clear answer from me I'm afraid!

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  3. It's nice to know I'm not the only one who obsesses about things. I do think that the most important thing–as both of you have said–is to set acceptable limits. Most of the time that's not too hard, but sometimes, when the thing I'm obsessing about is something that also gives me genuine pleasure to do, then setting and sticking to those limits can be hard!

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  4. Oh, Rosalyn, I relate to every sentence of this post! Yes, setting acceptable limits is often necessary. But sometimes you need to ride the wave while it's cresting–while all that power and energy and momentum is there. (In other words, go for it! Get that novel written and sent off! :-))

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