Monday, August 10, 2009
Last week, the Red Room Web site held a blogging contest. The object was to answer the following question: “What are your obsessions? Your passions? Your fixations?”
My first, impulsive answer was “You don’t want to know.” Number Two: “Ask my wife.”
And then there’s that old favorite: “None of your damn business.”
I oscillate between resistance to answer the question and the sweet impish desire to tell flattering—but flat-out—lies: “Ohhhh, I obsess all day about the Founders and how their legacy has at last borne fruit with Presidency of Barack Obama, while I nobly fix my gaze upon the distant horizon.”
Truth-telling is a deadly business so I’m better off joking about checking off all the movies I’ve seen in Leonard Maltin’s guide; wondering why movie villain Lee Van Cleef was never cast as a vampire (he would’ve been great); or finessing my Niles Crane impersonation.
As a man suffering from ALS once told an interviewer digging for great pearls of wisdom from a dying man: “I think about stupid things.”
The Red Room invitation was inspired by a comment author Joyce Maynard made about obsession and writing. I’ve not read Maynard’s work but I understand she’s written some classic memoirs, including one about her time with Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger. I guess you would categorize her work as “memoir’ or “confessional literature.”
Not one that applies to me.
I deliberately cast myself a genre writer. One thing that sets genre writers (or, maybe, “writers of action fiction”) apart from mainstream literary writers is a seeming rejection of personal revelation. For example, while you learn a whole lot of about spy work and spy life from John LeCarré’s spy fiction, you learn little about LeCarré’s actual life when he worked for British intelligence (though he wrote a brilliant true-life portrait of his con man father in The New Yorker some years back).
I attempted confessional pieces when I was quite young and, frankly, regret every word. Revealing (and obsessing over) the intimate treasures buried in my psychic sock drawer is so much less appealing to me at fifty-four than it was at twenty-four when I had the peculiar idea I’d somehow alchemize tragedian Eugene O’Neill with farceur Joe Orton and conjure something brilliant. (Yes, you're right. It was a bad idea.)
I do obliquely use my life and very infrequently my private obsessions in my tales, but not to “share myself.” Embarrassment aside, once I’ve shown my secret obsessive self to a reader, what are they supposed to do with it? Whether they actually see me in a protagonist or not doesn’t matter.
What matters is how lost you get in the world I’ve created and the adventures that take place in it. My life is the spackled cement. You should hardly see it.
Back to obsession and writing. I don’t see that writing a book is as an obsessive act, unless you suffer from graphomania; in that case, the writer might never finish, only vanish behind slowly rising white towers of unread paper.
In life, it seems, though obsessives very often occupy books, they seldom write them, or at least successfully completed ones. An obsessive can, say, build a bridge, but he must delegate the overwhelming multitude of complex tasks to others to focus his obsessive laser-like vision--building that bridge as he envisions it in his mind. Here, obsession can actually work to the good.
A novel writer, though he needs some outside help, writes his books alone. Fiction and nonfiction alike, book are large complex projects, riddled with uncertainties and requiring a thought-out, nuanced, rather wide-minded approach. Passion (or “flow” as I sometimes think of it) surely plays a prime, but intermittent, role. But even a story aflame with passion on every page is simultaneously the product of a cool, detached and unobsessed eye. The writer has to consider and weave together a
multitude of details; he doesn’t need a laser vision so much as eyes and ears wrapped around his skull like jeweled headbands, seeing and hearing from all directions; and a fine filter to synthesize everything he absorbs.
At his most concentrated (and psychotic), the obsessive is tyrannized by one single thought, to the brute exclusion of all else, even—and especially—his own well being. He’s a closed-off beam of light, shooting through the blackness all around. His obsession imprisons him. He’s unable to stand outside his hot thin wire to see and work with the shape of it, the nuance and the context of the events he’s burning through; he might be likened to an extreme singularity or a kind of black hole.
The difference between an obsessive like Jack Torrance, the protagonist in The Shining and author Stephen King is the difference between “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” typed out countless times and Stephen King’s finished rounded masterpiece.
Sometimes I see the word “obsessive” used by critics to describe the relationship of an artist to his themes or techniques, but this seems an exaggeration. If Thomas Pynchon was as “obsessed” by paranoia as critics claim, he couldn’t leave his apartment (which he does quite often, or so I’ve read), much less write a book. If Alfred Hitchcock was as “obsessed” in his films with blondes as is said, he’d be a mere crazed girly photographer like Irving Klaw (though Hitch did suffer from
episodes of obsession in his life, as blond Tippi Hedren well knew; obsession did both her and Hitchcock’s art little good).
As I finish this, I’m certainly “focused.” I’m also “concentrated,” “fascinated”, “concerned with” and even “intensely thoughtful.”
But every day, I reach a point where I'm outside of myself and see that I'm no longer Master of the Universe I'm trying to put up on the screen. The words, the scenes, start to stumble and slow, my thoughts turn to slow-pouring mud, while my stomach growls and I realize I’m thirsty for a beer or some top shelf scotch. I have several other pieces to write and my wife calls from downstairs: Time to go watch Frasier.
(Photo of author's eye by author)