Let Obsession Be Your Ally: Be Haunted By It
Steve Almond | November 2013
Like most every other narcissistic writer on earth, I figured the heavens would part the moment I published my first book, and God Herself would gaze down upon me and set her soft soft fingers to my heart and banish from my body all traces of doubt, insecurity, and resentment.
This did not happen. Instead, I spent a lot of time checking my Amazon sales rank and shaking my fist at the sky. When I wasn’t doing that, I was working on a long, tedious novel about a false messiah.
I was trying to write this novel in part because my agent had assured me that I needed to write a novel in order to be taken seriously, by which I think she meant (but couldn’t quite bring herself to say) “nobody wants to read any more of your short stories.”
The result was that I spent eighteen months in toil. My agent spent about eighteen seconds telling me it was no good—a painfully accurate assessment.
At this point, I did what any formerly narcissistic writer would: I fell into a deep depression. I stopped writing altogether, if you don’t count self-pitying poems, which I don’t think you should.
It was unclear whether I was ever going to write another book. I had almost no motivation. The only thing I was interested in, frankly, was eating candy. I eventually pitched a local weekly newspaper a story about Necco wafers, mostly because I wanted to visit the Necco factory, which was right near my gym.
The moment I stepped in to that factory, I knew that I wanted to spend as much time there as possible. The aroma alone sent me into raptures, never mind the sight of a chocolate curtain pouring down onto marshmallow bunnies.
In fact, I wanted to visit as many candy factories as I could. The problem was I needed a pretext. The only one that available to me was the notion that I would “write a book” about candy.
So I got a list of candy companies and began sending letters to the presidents of these companies informing them that I was writing a book and asking to tour their factories. Half a dozen of them were kind and crazy enough to say yes.
To make a long story very short, I wound up writing a book about the experience called Candyfreak, and that book wound up selling quite well, at least compared to my other books.
For this reason, people often assume that I had some master plan.
But Candyfreak was the direct result of having no master plan at all. Or, to put it more precisely, of abandoning a master plan that wasn’t working.
The only reason I wrote Candyfreak is because I simply couldn’t get myself to the keyboard to write anything else. That sounds desperate. But sometimes desperation can be your ally. It can strip you of certain literary vanities that may be holding you back.
I thought I was supposed to write a Big, Important novel. But the truth was I didn’t have the patience or discipline or the Big, Important ideas necessary to write one.
What I did have was a lifelong obsession with candy and a genuine curiosity about the role candy had played in my life, and plays in the culture at large.
As an engine of literary creation, obsession has turned out to be a lot more valuable to me than any of my grandiose ambitions.
Because in the end writers do their best work when they simply tell the truth about the stuff that matters to them most deeply, whether in fictional disguise or not, whether in prose or verse, whether on-line or in print.
I’m not arguing against big, imaginative endeavors, or writing to discover worlds heretofore unknown to you. Both of these are laudable goals.
What I’m saying is that any great piece of writing—from The Iliad to Don Quixote to Moby Dick to Lolita to Infinite Jest—is driven by obsession. The books that endure are invariably commemorations of their creators’ obsessions.
When young writers ask me what they should be writing about, I always say the same thing: write about what you can’t get rid of by other means.
Because your obsessions aren’t there simply to fill your mind and heart with junk. They are the deepest forms of human meaning, even if they seem frivolous or shameful.
In the end, my book about candy wasn’t just some lighthearted romp through Willy Wonkaville—though it did contain plenty of what my wife calls “candy porn.” It was also an attempt to explore the ways in which people seek a path from their own despair, which is the role candy has always played for me.
Most writers, at one time or another, run headlong into their own doubt and confusion and artistic limitations. And in my experience, you’re most vulnerable at the precise moment after your first great success.
It is at this point that I would urge you to tune out the buzz of your own expectations, and the world’s, and focus on what truly excites you about the world.
To whatever extent possible, find a way to write about those things. It may not produce a best-seller, or even a book. But it will do something more vital: keep you at the keyboard, where you belong.
Steve Almond is the author, most recently, of the story collection God Bless America.