Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The limits of obsession

with 3 comments

The head beagle

If there’s a theme that runs throughout this blog, it’s that a novelist needs to be a creature of exceptional obsessiveness. You can start with the mere fact of solitude, which is perhaps the one necessary precondition for the writing life: enduring it, while not falling into a cycle of procrastination, requires an almost monastic dedication to the idea of stringing words together for a living. Doing it for one day is hard enough; keeping at it for year after year demands not just commitment but countless small tactics and habits for meeting your quota while staying sane. As T.H. White points out, a novel consists of thousands of discrete decisions—”nouns, verbs, prepositions, adjectives, reeling across the page”—and the writer, in turn, has to transform himself into a kind of machine for making choices. Many of those judgment calls arise more or less logically from the premises you’ve established from the beginning, but others, like the ones involving a story’s major elements and themes, need to be willed into existence from scratch. It’s exhausting, even for experienced writers, and sticking to it calls for a singlemindedness that verges on the psychotic.

Yet like most things about the writing life, there’s a buried irony here. An identical degree of obsessiveness, devotion to craft, and tenacity goes into writing a bad novel as it does a great one. When you look at it from the outside, there’s nothing to separate the series of actions taken by a writer on the right track from those of an equally talented writer moving steadily in the wrong direction. Both spend about the same amount of time at the computer; both generate the same kind of ephemera—notes, outlines, discarded drafts—that surround any writing project; and even the quality of the writing itself may look largely similar from page to page. It’s only when the work is done, if then, that the outcome is clear. The strategies that a writer develops to survive from one day to the next tell us nothing about whether an idea is promising or misguided, marketable or unpublishable. And in some ways, the more disciplined and professional the writer, the easier it is for him to wind up in a dead end: the very same habits of work and discipline that sustain him also make it possible to keep pushing forward into a cul-de-sac after a less capable writer might have given up.

The head beagle

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, because I’ve reached the point in my current project when such distinctions start to weigh most heavily. At the moment, I have a tight draft that will run 85,000 words or so when done. It’s a novel I badly wanted to write—although as with most stories, there are often times in the dusty middle innings when I have trouble remembering why—and it’s as accurate a portrait of myself and my ability as I can manage. Technically, it’s fine: it starts in the right place, ends where it should, isn’t longer than it needs to be, and keeps the story moving. The writing is about as strong as it should be, given my level of experience and the rounds of revisions I’ve undergone. What I don’t know is if it’s any good, or if anyone else will want to read it. It all hinges on a hunch, dating back more than a year, that this would be a worthwhile use of my time, but that initial intuition has long since been lost, or dispersed, by rewrites, notes, and the endless process of fixing small or large problems in a story that once seemed so simple. I know that my solutions are better than most and probably worse than others. But I don’t know much of anything else.

What’s clear to me, at this point in my life, is that love of writing alone isn’t enough. Neither is craft, or even obsessiveness. They’re necessary, but not sufficient. And one of the central realizations of writing is that you can be smart, diligent, and crazy in all the right ways, and still miss the target. I’m not saying it’s true in this case; only that I don’t know, and there’s a sense in which I can’t know. That’s part of the appeal of writing: if it were predictable, like an industrial process, it would be even less likely to reward a reader’s time. All I can do is follow Mamet’s advice, as best as I can: “Keep it simple, stupid, and don’t violate the rules that you do know. If you don’t know which rule applies, just don’t muck up the more general rules.” And if it doesn’t work here, there’s always the next one. In a sense, that’s the most valuable aspect of a writer’s obsessiveness—not so much the kind that keeps you going within a particular story, but the kind that sustains you from one project to the next. Given enough will, it’s possible for anyone to slog from first page to last, but another order of stubbornness entirely is required to do it again. It can be hard to distinguish it from the psychosis of an untalented writer who refuses to quit. But that’s just one more reason why good and bad writers have more in common with one another than they do with anyone else.

Written by nevalalee

January 21, 2015 at 9:10 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with ,

3 Responses

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  1. In the (limited) (fiction) writing I’ve done this has been the central issue. I am not so good at telling, pardon my vernacular, shit from clay. And I guess that is why writers have to read and perhaps edit as well as write, if there are enough hours in the day. As I look back, the single most important thing in allowing me to better see just how bad my writing is has been increased attention to the works I read, the little second reader that does not get sucked up into the story but tries to see just how the author is making it all work. I alluded to such things when I wrote about my response to The Icon Thief. So, to me, increased (though still incomplete, of course) ability to evaluate my own work is a benefit of reading blogs like yours.


    January 21, 2015 at 4:56 pm

  2. PS: I recognise that knowing it is ‘good’ and knowing others will want to read it are two different things!


    January 22, 2015 at 4:24 am

  3. That’s why it’s so important to get outside reads from people you trust, which is something I resisted as a writer for far too long. Even if you disagree with their comments, there’s nothing better when it comes to forcing you to regard your work in a new light. I don’t like getting notes any more than anyone else, but I’ve come to accept that it’s an essential part of the process.


    January 22, 2015 at 7:34 pm

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