The Art of Obsession

Some of us are compulsive in our creativity


One of my students recently confided in me about her difficulty writing papers. She comes up with a topic, she explained, but then can’t figure out where to go with it. After making a few preliminary and obvious points, she has nothing left to say.

I gave her the standard talk about brainstorming and free writing, working up an informal outline, and so forth, but she said she had tried these techniques to no avail. So I told her to try what I do—lie in bed at night or sit in a darkened room and fixate on an idea. I go over and over it in my mind and don’t let it go. I do this automatically: obsess over ideas that eventually become works of fiction or non-fiction. I have an obsessive personality, and I channel it into my writing.  I am even convinced that, on some level, obsessive-compulsive thinking is the key to creative expression. Perhaps it can’t be learned, but maybe some aspects of it can: my student tried it and a few days later said that it had already helped her generate new ideas.

Jamaica Kincaid’s latest novel, See Now Then, reinforces this notion. Kincaid’s distinctive voice, her brilliant imagery, and her intensely felt, if often negative emotional take on experience, are all enormously compelling to me. So is the apparently obsessive-compulsive nature of her creativity. In See Now Then, the same themes, drawn from her own life, surface again and again. Her phrasing is almost incantatory in its repetitiveness. The obsessive element of her thinking is visible on the page and translates into a brilliantly original and searingly emotional narrative.

Of course there are artists who are more workmanlike and lucid about their process. Anthony Trollope famously (and to the detriment of his literary prestige) compared himself to a carpenter. He wrote for a set number of hours each day, churning out book after book. But I do think such writers are the exception, and that even in the classroom, the best and most original papers result from processes that are not altogether logical, prescribed, or even sane.

Depression is closely associated with obsessive thinking. Some of us alleviate our depression by channeling it into creativity. In the case of writers, this means turning an idea over and over, keeping it constantly in view—the metaphor that comes to mind is of a dog shaking a rug, tenaciously holding onto it and refusing to let go. We who write this way refuse to let an idea alone. Instead, through worrying over it, we find a way to make the ordinary into something new, something expressive of ourselves.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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