Writing as an Obsession

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this topic discussed before in our industry….so let’s give it a try.

The topic is: Writing as an obsession…is it good or bad? What does it mean to be obsessed with one’s writing? Is an obsession God’s way of maximizing one’s talent or is it man’s way of clutching a God-given talent too tightly?

What prompts this discussion is that I’ve had several encounters with the topic from various places in the past few days. Frankly, I don’t think I know any writers who are obsessed with their writing, but maybe they’re just not telling me if they are.

First, let me address the response I know you all have to this question. YES, I understand that Christian writers are to be focused fully on Christ (I won’t use the word obsession. It doesn’t seem quite right). God is to have our full attention whether we’re writers or not, right? So, with that point of agreement, let me move on.

Some of you may know I’m a big fan of music from the 1960s. I’ve always enjoyed the music of the Beach Boys and right now I’m reading Wouldn’t it Be Nice? Brian Wilson’s autobiography. It’s not a pleasant read at all. Brian’s dad was a horrible father. He physically and mentally abused Brian and his brothers on a routine basis. Perhaps that’s what led Brian into his obsession with music and the resulting mega-success the Beach Boys have enjoyed the past fifty years. By age twenty, Brian was consumed by his music—and his sheer drive to be the best songwriter/record producer in the industry. He HAD to be one number. He even admits to the word “obsessed.” Music was his life around the clock. He even slept next to his keyboard.

And, of course, it paid off, big time. Brian Wilson is one of the legends of rock music. But had Brian not been obsessed with his music, he would never have been the legend he is today. Was it worth it? Would you pay that price to succeed?

On my “to be read” pile is a book about Michelangelo. I’m hazarding a guess that he was obsessed with his art. I read somewhere that Alexander Cruden was obsessed about compiling his concordance to the Bible. (One would just about HAVE to be obsessed to list every usage of every word in the Bible. 🙂 But in his case, surely it was a God-given obsession….or was it?)

Another quote I came across was from the very prolific late writer Isaac Asimov. He once said, “I write for the same reason I breathe – because if I didn’t, I would die.”

Can any of us say that? Is saying that even healthy? Is that making an idol out of our writing?

Asimov also said, “If my doctor told me I had only six months to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” He also claimed that his experience with writer’s block was the worst ten minutes of his life. I strongly suspect that an obsession with writing does tend to eliminate writer’s block.

Okay, a few more quotes:

“I have always been in a condition in which I cannot not write.” Barbara Tuchman

“A writer is someone who write, that’s all. You can’t stop it; you can’t make yourself do anything else but that.” Gore Vidal

“A good writer always works at the impossible.” John Steinbeck

“When I’m near the end of the book, I sleep in the same room with it. Somehow the book doesn’t leave you when you’re asleep next to it.” Joan Didion

I could go on—I love quotes by writers and have several books of them—but you get the idea. I will, however, mention one more anecdote that bears on being obsessive. This comes from the late chess champion Bobby Fischer. When he was asked why he was able to defeat Russian chess grandmaster Boris Spassky, he replied, “Boris has said that, to him, the game of chess is like life. To me, chess IS life.”

The difference was one of obsession.

So, what do you think?

Is obsession about one’s writing healthy or unhealthy?

Are you obsessed?

And if so, are you obsessed with writing itself or with becoming a published writer? There’s a huge difference.

Do you think an obesessed writer is more likely to succeed?

I’m tempted to write more about this. It’s a fascinating aspect of our craft and one I don’t see discussed in Christian writing circles.

What say you?

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25 Responses to Writing as an Obsession

  1. Jan Cline December 6, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    Nick, you are so brave to breach this topic. But I count this as one of your best posts ever! This makes us dig deep. I would have to say that obsession would be a negative thing, unless God has called you to be a writer and only a writer. As for me, He has called me to other things as well. How can I obsess over one thing and still be faithful to the other calls on my life? I love writing with a passion, but I could never be obsessed by it if it cast a shadow on the other passions in my life. Do you think it has anything to do with discipline?
    Jan

  2. Nick December 6, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    Jan, I don’t think it has to do with discipline–if you mean disciplining one’s self to write.

    Discipline is making time to do what you should, even when you don’t have time to do it. Obsession would not require the setting aside of time for writing, it would require breaking away from writing reluctantly to make time for the other issues of life.

    Mystery writer Georges Simenon used to lock himself away for writing marathons, barely taking time to eat or sleep until he got a draft finished.

  3. Nick December 6, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

    For some reason, I’m not getting the comments coming through. They are in my email inbox and I’m trying to set them free. Should be soon.

  4. Kathy Nickerson December 6, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    I still think life needs balance. Even a great genius needs friends, family, and interests beyond his own creative process to stay fresh and balanced. I think the Michelangelos among us risk seeing the world upside down if they stare at the ceiling too long. Just my opinion, of course.

  5. Carrie Schmeck December 6, 2011 at 5:02 pm #

    We could also say that John the Baptist was obsessed with his mission. He died alone but did great things. However, he was called to his obsession (I believe) and he was willing to sacrifice all else.

    I would find it hard to argue that anything I might write would be worth that kind of sacrifice. Writing is a gift and God means for us to enjoy our gift. He may even call us to move others with our words. But He also calls us to relationship. If we forsake one for the other, are we not ignoring our call?

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

  6. Barb December 6, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    Nick, I think this is a great topic and one that’s been on my mind a lot lately. When I wrote my first Bible study, I wrote it out of love for God and for my readers. I didn’t like to write, but I was so grateful for what God had done for me that I wanted to help others, and I thought writing seemed the best way to do that.

    I self-published the study and then I went to a couple of writers conferences. (Picture scary music here.)

    They told me what I needed to do to get published: write a blog, write well, develop a platform, etc, etc, etc. All good information and things I needed to hear.

    There was only one problem. I got swept up into the obsession of writing as a business: getting published, becoming an entertaining writer, becoming a perfect writer, developing a following on my blog, being careful of what I write on my blog so another writer doesn’t take it and use it, etc, etc.

    What started out as a loving God/loving others endeavor had turned into a self-absorbed, self-validating occupation. I wasn’t obsessed with writing, but I was obsessed with all these other things that were leading me away from God.

    For me, at least, writing is kind of dangerous. I’ve spent the last couple of months renewing my mind and trying to see it from God’s point of view and I’m only now starting to get a clear picture of the ways I’ve gone astray and the things I’m holding onto too tightly.

    For me as a non-fiction writer, I think what it boils down to is this: what is my focus? Is it loving God and loving my reader, or is it serving myself? Am I willing to die to myself and write what God wants me to write even if it’s not fun and easy and even if I don’t get rewarded for it?

    When I have the wrong focus, I’m obsessed, unhappy, and a crummy writer. My goal is to write as an act of worship to God and love to my reader. I’m hoping that can become a way of life.

    But I’m not there yet.

  7. Tim December 6, 2011 at 6:00 pm #

    Hey Nick,

    A very intriguing post! It seems like we Christians baptize obsession by calling it a passion. That seems to make it more palatable, doesn’t it? And I like the stress you placed on something that somehow seems “small” in the arena of spiritual development. My latest proposal explores those small issues, so I really like your take.

    I’m a panelist on the Writers’ View, and have been thinking of making my next discussion question something similar, along the lines of, “We all have many demands and activities, from family, jobs, church, friends, and relaxation. How does your writing fit into the panoply of your life? How important is it? And, perhaps more significantly, how do you prioritize it?”

  8. Dana E December 6, 2011 at 6:54 pm #

    Nick – great post.

    Barb – it sounds like your are learning and growing through your journey.

    A writing obsession can be especially problematic because it so isolating. It’s easy to ignore those around you. You can become so single focused – writing, revising, seeking publication – that everything else (including your relationship with God) fades into the background.

    Right now, my prayer is that God will change the desires of my heart (to write/publish) if that is not within His will for my life. God is always faithful.

  9. Tami Meier December 6, 2011 at 11:11 pm #

    Barb,

    Amen, sister. Yesterday, I was having a self-absorbed pity party. And today, God used words to encourage me and gave me a new perspective.

    I am thankful that God inspired my sister-in-law to write a simple e-mail using words to encourage me. Then after receiving the e-mail, God used a short story from a Christmas gift book that I picked up to read. The touching true story gave me a new look on life and what’s most important. Words that someone wrote brought me to tears and helped me to see that my troubles really aren’t that bad. God used these writings to change my heart and to turn my focus into helping others in their need.

    Today was a good day. Thanks Nick for bringing up this key topic. Writing, that changes lives, is important.

  10. Timothy Fish December 7, 2011 at 3:14 am #

    When you consider that obsession means, “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling; broadly: compelling motivation,” it seems pretty clear that writing is an obsession for the vast majority of authors. But is a preoccupation ungodly? Certainly it is if it reaches the point where the object of our preoccupation is seen as more important than our relationship with God. We can also say it is if we allow ourselves to worry about our preoccupation rather than leaving it up to God. But if our preoccupation is focused on the things that God would have us focus on, I don’t see that having an obsession is wrong.

  11. Rachel December 7, 2011 at 6:35 am #

    I think this is a good topic for artists in general. I know for myself, as a Christian writer, I find a healthy amount of obsession necessary – if “healthy amount of obsession” isn’t too much of a paradox. In my experience, excessive engagement becomes a good measure of whether the work I’m doing is worthwhile and I find I have to reach a point where the work is satisfactory to some degree before I can let it rest. I am fortunate to have people in my life who tolerate this level of obsession and fortunate, too, that what I write (mostly poems) and how I write means these episodes of obsession are fairly short – hours, days, rarely weeks. I think God is patient with us, too – as, and more so than, our loved ones. As long as we don’t substitute our work for engagement with him, I think we’re okay. I wonder about Brian Wilson and whether eventually the music couldn’t bear what he needed it to, in terms of giving him a level of distraction from the painful things in his life, but as my husband reminded me when I brought up this topic with him – he could certainly have picked some more destructive means of dealing with childhood trauma.

    At some point, we have to face these things with God though. And as long as creative work is giving us room to order our little chaos, I think it may be a means of doing that facing which he gives us – a gift. Our being doggedly devoted to it can be a fitting response to this gift. But devotion, passion, obsession, engagement, etc. all give different nuances to the same intentionality in our work, despite ourselves. I like the idea that someday I’ll be more disciplined about writing and not consider my temporary possession by a poem as the only way I can create. (But really: obsession is rather thrilling and I think I’d miss it if it didn’t happen at least once in a while!)

  12. Mary McKinzie December 7, 2011 at 9:07 am #

    Nick,

    This is a great topic to introduce among Christian writers. I enjoy reading their responses. I am a novice writer compared to most; however, I am not a novice Christian. I have not written in my blog for more than a year, yet the number of readers continues to grow. This has nothing to do with me or my writing ability. It has to do with what God placed on my heart to share and those who need to read it. The various reasons for my not writing this past year include my dog being shot, illness, my mother’s death, building a house and the on-going argument of my “misplaced time and devotion” from my husband who happens to be of a different denomination than me. Not your typical “writers’ block,” yet these things have caused me to examine why I am so drawn to share and don’t write at all cost. I discovered my answer from Oswald Chambers. He explained that “to a child of God, everything in the world should be perceived as clouded and the only true, clear focus should be on God and our relationship with Him.” So nothing, I repeat, nothing should occupy our mind more than God. For a Christian writer, God must direct. Otherwise time spent and obsession on one’s own writing are futile and the writing will not serve God. As a result of my understanding, I would much rather be directed of God and devoted to His will on a daily basis than to be obsessed.

    Blessings,
    ~♥~ Mary

  13. Tami Meier December 7, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    When it comes to writing, it’s important to be intentional otherwise nothing will get done. Yes, I’m speaking from experience. Smile. I’m a slow learner, but eventually I get it.

    I think it’s good to be obsessed with being obedient to what God has called you to do. The key is obedience—first in loving God, then your neighbor as stated in the greatest commandment.

    Why do we face trials and who will God honor? Jesus said, “…My Father will honor the one who serves me.” John 12:26 (NIV) The troubles we face are for a reason. Jesus said, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.” John 12:27 Road blocks are for a reason. Maybe its God’s loving way to hold us back for His perfect timing and plan. Or perhaps God has brought you to this hour of trial for His very purpose, that ultimately God’s name would be glorified.

    Writers, May I encourage you to make the most of every writing opportunity. God’s speed!

  14. Tami Meier December 7, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    Mary, thank you for what you shared, I too struggled with all of life’s demands and how to balance that with writing. Then the Lord showed me that just like the seasons: winter turns to spring, spring turns to summer and summer into fall, our lives are filled with seasons.

    When my girls were young, I went through a season of changing diapers. As I got older, a season of caring for the needs of my grandparents; a season of grieving; a season of writing and so on. I want to encourage you if God has you in a season elsewhere other than writing, its okay. This so helped me to take the pressure off from feeling guilty for not being supper woman. In each season God gives you, be faithful in what God has called you to do. I hope this helps. Blessings!

  15. Mary McKinzie December 7, 2011 at 8:47 pm #

    Thank you, Tami, for your words of encouragement. You listen deeply, don’t you? So do I. Your words jumped off the computer screen and spoke loudly to me. First, to be “intentional.” Secondly, “it’s good to be obsessed with being obedient to what God has called you to do.” Thirdly, and most common to me, was your discussion concerning trials. Your specific wording, “road blocks are for a reason,” replaced my usual encouraging phrase to others, “trials are to grow us.” I have grown enough as a Christian to know that I will never stop growing. The trials are ever present and I could write non-stop glorifying God in every single one! Your wording, “road blocks,” hit me though. With my Father’s help, I have no problem celebrating my trials; however, when they are referred to as “road blocks,” I definitely realize my focus may be altered for a time (a season) but my obedience is still steadfast.

    Thank you…from one listening encourager to another. May our Father continue to bless your writing.

    ~♥~ Mary

  16. Tami Meier December 8, 2011 at 12:02 am #

    Ah, thank you Mary. One of the things about seasons is that it does not last. This gives me hope when I’m going through a hard season. But it’s also a good reminder to treasure the good times such as spending cherished moments with the ones we love. Life truly is a gift, it’s nice to have times like this to reflect and choose wisely how we spend it.

    And for those who love God, no matter how life ends whether good or bad this is what we have to look forward to: “… No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him…”1 Corinthians 2: 9 (NIV)

    “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4: 18 (NIV)

    “…our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,…” Philippians 3: 20 (NIV)

    “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.” James 1: 12 (NIV)

    I love how God’s Word gives us everything we need for life, godliness, and a future hope as we look to Him.

    “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” 2 Peter 1:3 (NIV) He truly is amazing! Isn’t He?

  17. Marci Seither December 9, 2011 at 2:21 pm #

    Hi Nick,
    What a great topic. I have been mulling it over for a while and will probably still be thinking about it a while longer.
    To start with, I love the saying “Even a good thing can be a bad thing when it keeps us from the best thing.” That is true of everything, and as Christians we know that the best thing is God, who was very specific about not having any other god before Him. Having said that I think that the word “obsession” can often be replaced with “passion with action.” Brian Wilson didn’t just love music.. he put his passion into action and the goal was to be the best he could be in that area of his life. He made an impact on the music industry. Paul was obsessed with the Gospel. He put his passion into action and it impacted the world.
    Think of how our society would be different if more Christians were obsessed with what they were doing, whatever it may be. I am passionate about truth and about my writing, but I don’t always put the action behind it that fans the burning desire into a flame.
    Thanks again for the great topic!

  18. Tami Meier December 10, 2011 at 7:57 am #

    I was not trying to look for it, but here is what the Lord showed me as I opened His Word.

    Whatever you do… “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Col. 3:17 (NIV)

    All…work at it with all your heart. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Col. 3:23-24 (NIV)

    Complete the work. “Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the work you have received in the Lord.” Col. 4:17 (NIV)

    Franklin Talking Dictionary: “Obsession: something you can’t stop thinking about”

    Think on such things… “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” Phl. 4:8 (NIV)

    From the movie: Amazing Grace, as William Wilberforce’s friends suggest: “Mr. Wilberforce, We understand you’re having problems choosing to do the work of God or the work of a political activist.” “We humbly suggest that you can do doth.”

  19. Janalyn Voigt December 10, 2011 at 8:53 pm #

    With this post, you’ve hit on one of my passions: helping writers achieve balance.

    The title of my website blog is “Live Write Breathe.” I didn’t know why these words in particular breathed into my spirit, but they felt right. Later, a tagline popped into my head: Live with passion, write well, but remember to breathe.

    We writers get so caught up in our writing goals that we can forget to take the time to live passionate lives. This robs not only ourselves and our families, but also our writing. As Henry David Thoreau said in his Journal: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live” (19 August 1851). Also, in scrambling to meet our own and others’ expectations of us as writers, we can tread dangerously close to burnout.

    I believe writers are unsung and often unsupported missionaries. We are light-bearers in a spiritual battlefield. If we focus on the flame we carry rather than the One who lights it, we are guilty of idolatry. We become driven rather than purposeful, obsessed with the kingdom of self rather than the kingdom of God.

  20. Barb December 13, 2011 at 7:31 am #

    Love this, Janalyn!

  21. Yvette Schneider December 15, 2011 at 10:18 pm #

    You might be interested to know that a similar question is sometimes asked on the essay portion of the GRE. The question is actually a statement that goes something like: “True genius is manifested as an obsession.” The test taker has to take a pro or con position offering examples to support his opinion.

  22. Evelyn B. Ryan December 18, 2011 at 7:34 pm #

    If we must be obsessed, then let us be obsessed with serving God, then writing about it.

  23. Eureka February 4, 2012 at 1:43 am #

    I looked up obsess in the dictionionary and it said that it was ‘ to fill the mind continually to a troubling extent’
    Isn’t God the one we shouldbe filling our lives with? If our writng takes over God’s position then, yes, writing is a dangerous obsession. However if we concentrate on Him first then our writing will be ‘safe’ and, more importantly, God-given.

  24. Gary Sorkin February 10, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

    The topic of obsessed writing occured to me recently as I was writing the words, “Fade Out” on my latest screenplay that my mind was really on what I was planning to write next. I awoke that night at 3 am, went to my keyboard and followed, “Fade In” with 9 pages on my ‘next’ project.

    I have an older brother who has dementia and if he has thoughts at all they are certainly not cliffhangers, or jury verdicts, or funny anecdotes.

    I wonder if I stopped writing what would fill my head? I’m afraid of the word, “Nothing.”

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