Obsessions lie at the heart of most of the things we do well. And figuring out what your obsessions are in writing may well be the key to figuring out that next short story or novel.
Poet Natalie Diaz talks of “triggering obsessions.” At Tin House one summer, her craft talk, entitled “Building The Emotional Image,” focused on her obsessions with horns, bones, and hands. J. Courtney Sullivan says that “I do think novelists tend to return to certain obsessions in their work,” and writer/editor Ann Napolitano calls this phenomenon “a magnet board”: those things that constantly stick to the surface, those things that we return to over and over. Elizabeth Strout, on winning The Story Prize, acknowledged that she does have “a mother-daughter thing.” And Meg Wolitzer, whose new novel The Female Persuasion comes out next week, said the following: “People say, write what you know, but it’s really, write about what obsesses you,” she said. “Write about what you’re thinking about all the time.”
The challenge is to figure out your obsessions. Some are probably obvious: those things that pop up in everything you write. They can be objects: hands, rosaries, that apartment from your childhood. They can be places: the beach, New York, the town where you grew up. They can be themes: death, motherhood, feminism. Others are less clear, less obvious on the surface. And those are the ones to pay attention to, the obsessions that pop up from your subconscious, those through lines that you didn’t even realize you were creating.
Once you find those obsessions, write toward them. Lean into them. Make them the focus of your work.
- Take three short stories by a writer you love. Read them carefully. What are the common threads between the three stories? Make a list. What themes can you see the writer returning to, again and again? Are there any objects that reappear? If you had to guess, what are some of their obsessions?
- Take three pieces of your own writing. Read them as objectively as you can, as though they were written by someone else. What are the commonalities between the works? Do you see anything that you hadn’t seen before? Have you described anything in exactly the same way?
- Write for ten minutes about a moment that you remember from your childhood. Just keep writing, filling in the moment with details, using all your senses. Try not to stop until the ten minutes are up. Put the writing away, without looking at it. A week later, repeat the exercise. Do this for four weeks and then look at all four pieces of writing. What are the commonalities that emerge? Do you keep going back to the same moment? If not, how are the moments connected? How can you use these obsessions in your work?