Taking Over Me: On writing, obsession, and the search for artistic balance

Singer Amy Lee of the alternative rock/metal band Evanescence, from whose song the title for this week’s post is borrowed.  There’s something about the grammatical weirdness of the song’s name – the fact that, in ending with the subject “me”, it serves to emphasizes it – that really resonates with my experiences in this subject.

Amy Lee of the alt rock/metal band Evanescence, whose song I borrowed for the title of this post.

When a writer becomes utterly fixated on his/her WIP, is that a sign of artistic revelation or that s/he has become a less well-rounded person?

I’ve twice had it happen where writing has taken over my life, the first time being back in 2004 when I was writing my first (incomplete, shelved) novel, and the second in 2005 when I wrote the first volume of my two-volume historical fiction WIP.

In 2005 especially, I fully gave myself over to my writing.

I would write all night from after supper until bedtime at midnight, and then would take an additional hour or so to actually fall asleep as ideas continued to pelt my consciousness in a torrential downpour of inspiration, forcing me to scribble them in my bedside notepad lest I forget them all.

I didn’t write during weekdays, for I was unemployed and job searching, but my novel was never too far from my thoughts.  With everything I did, the movie-like sequence of events continued to play out in my mind (the pause button seemingly broken), once again necessitating compulsive note-taking.

Everywhere I went – particularly while walking – was in a state I came to refer to as “star-struck wandering” – ambling across the terrain of my own imagination with my characters whispering in my ear.

I did a lot of walking in those days to save money on transportation.  And on weekends, when I gave myself a break from job-searching, I would write for 8-10 hours a day straight, often declining the few social offers I received as a consequence.

It truly was an incredible experience to live in such an ecstasy of inspiration day in and day out.

But was it healthy?

“I’ll give up everything just to find you”

I’m not so sure.  Although I grew a lot as a writer during that time, I feel like I lost a lot of ground in other aspects of my life, becoming much too single-minded and narrow, both personally and professionally.

(I actually believe this writing obsession contributed to the six-year writing hiatus that followed, for with every feast comes a later famine, or in my case, a rebounding of my focus to everything I’d previously disregarded, up to and including (unrequited) love.)

As incredible an experience my writing obsession was, returning to this state remains one of my biggest writing-related fears.  So much so that while completing The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s 12-week artistic recovery self-help program, I wrote as part of my week 4 “artist’s prayer” the following:

Help me to eat, sleep, work, and live in balance with my art.
Help me prevent my art from becoming
The one and only thing,
And myself, as a result, becoming
Nothing.

“I have to be with you to live, to breathe”

Did the Bard ever have to constrain his creativity?

Did the Bard ever have to constrain his creativity?

These days, my writing life is very different.  I have a full-time job, and thus can’t afford to stay up all night with my characters.

I still write after supper, but each session is rigidly timed, and ends with a well-defined transition to help keep me out of the writing zone once my 2.5 hours is up.

I don’t write on Saturdays at all now, and try to say yes to social invites at least as often as I say no.

I still take notes – mainly short emails sent to myself from work – but an order of magnitude fewer than I used to, for work is busy and is what I’m being paid for.

I still think about writing while moving to and from various locations, but much of these thoughts are more concerned with writing for social media, including this blog.  Any thoughts about my novel that do arise I tend to stuff back down again before they fully bloom and then forever float away.

All in all, my writing life now is one of boundaries, schedules, and firmly applied brakes all the way down the hill to ensure my creativity doesn’t escape my control.

I’m not sure this is healthy either for an artist.  Indeed, some days, it all just feels a little flat.

“Who can decide what they dream?”

This week over at writersdigest.com, author Peter Stenson offers the following advice to writing a 90-day first draft:

  • Give yourself over to the story.
  • Allow it to take over your mind.
  • Allow yourself to space out at work. Allow yourself to toss and turn in the middle of the night. Allow yourself to become selfish with your mental obsessions. Forty-minute showers as you walk through imaginary towns in the year 2050? Yes. Forgetting to respond when somebody asks you a question…? Bingo. Allow yourself to think like your characters. To talk like them….  Just don’t fight the natural result of intense immersion into your writing world.

 Or, in other words, do everything I previously experienced and now fear and fight against with everything I’ve got.

Years ago, I had the opportunity to ask an author whose writing style has inspired me a lot (bestselling fantasy author Jacqueline Carey) about her experience with compartmentalizing her writing and the rest of her life.

Her response: essentially that she finds it impossible to do so.  Admittedly, she’s a full-time author whose life is inherently more preoccupied by writing, but still – it does make me wonder.

How does one strike a balance between being devoted to his/her art yet remaining accountable in every although aspect of his/her life?

(Image source #1 and #2)

(Sub-heading titles source: lyrics from “Taking Over Me” by Evanescence, 2003)

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16 thoughts on “Taking Over Me: On writing, obsession, and the search for artistic balance

  1. I hate to say this, but I don’t think it’s possible to do both. Either the writing or the things we’re supposed to do as responsible individuals are going to suffer — unless of course writing is your full time job that you get paid for. It’s up to you to determine which part of your life will be given more focus.

    As for me, acting like a responsible adult has caused huge damage to my writing progress! Right now I’m coming out of that “responsible adult” phase and trying to accommodate my writing more, and this plan seems to be working. I’ve spent the last year unsuccessfully trying to build my life around some sort of “Career.” This didn’t work for various reasons. First of all, I think employers can spot a dedicated writer; their sixth sense tells them I’ll just be dreaming of dryads and unicorns on the job! So first of all there was resistance from hiring managers, and second of all, my heart just wasn’t in it.

    Now I’ve still got my part time job and a few occasional gigs. This seems to work in keeping me financially stable, and I still have a reasonable amount of time to write. Also, I don’t socialize very much! So I guess that’s a really long answer to your question, Janna. 🙂

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    • 😦
      That’s what my face looks like after reading your answer, Sonya, for I fear that you’re right. The balance between life and art seems as elusive as the philosopher’s stone. It may be that the only way to do it is to constantly phase back and forth between “responsible adult” and “inspired wordsmith”. Unfortunately for my writing, I’m in the “responsible adult” phase at present and will probably continue on this way for some time yet.

      It may be that employers can spot dedicated writers, but you know who really can? IT managers! I can only imagine the trail of literary cyber bread crumbs I’m leaving being on the office server, to say nothing for the fact that my most frequent email contact is my own self!

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  2. I think everybody has a different style for novel writing that works for them. I can’t go on a writing purge like that; I’ve tried. But, I give into my story in other ways. I become obsessed,…not overtly, but whenever I have time during the day, in the shower, driving, whatever, my mind wanders back to the world I’ve created. I think you have to do that to a degree to write a novel. You can’t just come up with ideas; you have to fully grasp what the world is like in order to understand the rules of it in a natural way. I wish I could just crank out a draft like you. I really, really do. I think it’s the best way to go, because then you can begin doing the real work on it. I tend to let it trickle out of me.

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    • Hi Phil, thanks for the comment. I definitely don’t crank out draft; I wish I could too. I’m actually a very slow writer. The only thing in my favour is that I have very consistent work habits and am not easily distracted. Even when I was writing all the time, my pace was still the same; I just had more hours in the day to devote to it.

      I agree that obsessing by way of those in-between tasks is a good way to go in this busy world, and I try to do that too. It speaks to one of my favourite quotes on writing by Eugène Ionesco: “A writer never has a vacation. For a writer, life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.”

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  3. It makes sense that you became obsessed with writing when unemployed, because we are driven by our culture to productive. When that is taken away from us – employment, I mean – we fill it with something else. I wrote almost 2 full manuscripts in the year I was unemployed, and I haven’t written nearly that much since. Recently, I’ve been spending 8 hours a day writing for corporate America. It’s hard to get motivated about doing more of it when I get home. In fact, to the point that I’m getting alarmed about my lack of productivity.

    By the way, you’ve mentioned unrequited love twice. You know I’m dying to hear the story. Change the names to protect the innocent!

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    • That’s a good point about being driven by productive. I was definitely feeling pretty low at that time having no job and dependent upon my mother for my upkeep, and it did feel good to have something tangible to show for it.

      As for you, maybe just peck away at it little by little. Try setting very modest daily goals – 100 words a day, if needs be. Slow progress is better than no progress. Maybe you should try the “Don’t Break the Chain” method: http://lifehacker.com/281626/jerry-seinfelds-productivity-secret (and the calendar: http://bit.ly/19h3W5V).

      Only twice I’ve mentioned unrequited love? Yay me! I used to talk about it constantly, it was such a defining element of “my story”.

      To give you the Coles Notes version, I had a really close, intense friendship with a guy and was convinced it would evolve into a really close, intense romantic relationship despite his insistence that it wouldn’t. Why else would he stay around if not secretly in love with me?

      In retrospect, I was young and naïve (not to mention in denial) and brought a lot of my misery upon myself. He’s not completely absolved, though, for he treated me very disrespectfully in the end, to the point that I ended our 5-year friendship and told him to never contact me again. I haven’t heard from or even seen him since.

      He was once a very special person in my life, but all those memories have been tarnished by his behaviour those last few months. It’s like a saying I once heard: “It’s not how you start but how you finish that people always remember.”

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      • That’s a good idea about the small goal. I could knock out a hundred words before bedtime.

        You know, despite being into trashy horror movies and loud music, I have a soft side and fidn tragic love stories intriguing. Sorry it ended badly, but it’s the kind of thing that can fire your art.

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      • I actually enjoy tragic love stories too; there’s something cathartic about them, especially when you actually live it. And it true: all the best art grows from the seeds of heartache and misery.

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  4. I’m afraid I don’t have the answer for you, Janna. I gave up full time work last November to write full time and I haven’t written anything substantial yet (although I have been very busy trying to get my house ready). When I do get into the writing I become obsessed (I guess this is why I haven’t written much while I’ve been working on the house). I eat, drink, sleep and converse constantly with my characters and the plot. I dive head first into that huge pool of words and I stay there until the novel is finished. In this sense I become a total recluse. This is a state that I haven’t stayed in for long periods of time in the past because it takes over my life. Once I hit ‘publish’ I go back to being the old me (and concentrate on work, etc). The scary part of this is that once I’m completely settled in the house I’m now fixing and have the ‘writer’s nook’ set up, I’ll probably slip into this state and never return to the real world! It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens.

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    • I remember that you write this way, Dianne. I wrote part of my very first (shelved, incomplete) novel in such a state, and remember being as in awe of it as I was freaked out by it. I kind of wish I could go into that state at will, but with becoming a “responsible adult”, I seem to have lost the keys to that corner of my imagination. Every time anything even resembling it starts to come over me, I have to shut it down before it even becomes something to take care of business. Now, I truly am just a left-brained writer (the name I was originally going to choose for this blog).

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