James Engelhardt: Obsessions

As we pass through the end of September and my time as a guest blogger, I’d like to thank 49Writers again for the opportunity to offer a few thoughts. I hope they’ve been useful.

For this last post, I’d like to turn to two bits of lore I received from teachers. One will be immediately familiar: write what you know. The other, but only slightly less well-known (can’t resist a Princess Bride reference), is this: embrace your obsessions. I think they make perfect sense together, but I’d like to explore why. And I’ll start with an anecdote.

As a poetry reader at Prairie Schooner, I came across a very intriguing submission. The author taught pool—nine-ball and eight-ball—to seniors at an assisted living facility. I happily flipped the cover letter up and started to read. Unhappily the poems were predictable pieces about backyards, gardens, and relationships with grandmothers. All worthy topics, and probably what the author knew well. The opportunity the author missed was the obsession. That’s my reading, anyway. I mean, why else would you find yourself teaching pool in a rather unlikely spot if you weren’t obsessed with the game? It was this submission that got me thinking about pairing those classic bits of advice. 

Yet neither suggestion is easy, though they seem that way. What do you really know? Is experience enough? How much research might be enough? If you’re a novelist, you’re going to need to write the lives of people who are different from you, who aren’t you (the same can also be said of memoirists and poets). How much of those lives do you know? In the end, writing what you know is not so easy. When it comes to obsessions, the questions are different, though there’s a bit of overlap. How much do you know about the topic? How can you bring what you know to the page without boring the reader? What’s the story within the obsession? I’ve watched a book about taxidermy take shape over the course of several years. And if you’ve heard Sherry Simpson talk about bears, then you know how deep an obsession can go. Of course, an obsession might end up being the thing that you know. In that case, readers appreciate learning how other people get obsessed about unexplored aspects of the world.

Maybe I should combine the advice to read: write what you know about your obsessions. All the rest is typing. 

More seriously, there’s a balance to find between useful detail—from knowledge or obsessive research—and overwhelming the reader. Both pieces of advice suggest a way forward, but they’re quite open-ended. The task of the writer, then, is to find how to communicate what they know, to inspire the reader to explore an arcane topic with them. Clearly, and I’ll go back to the pool teacher, it can be hard for writers to trust themselves and their material. So now might be a good time to go back to your work with the basic advice turned into questions. What do I know? What’s my obsession? 

I’d like to end by going in a completely different direction for a moment, and I’m doing this because I was asked about novels in a comment. I haven’t written about novels this month for two reasons: First, we don’t receive a lot of novels, so I haven’t spent as much time thinking about the ways novels work. Second, the discussion around structuring novels is robust and voluminous. In short, I don’t have much to add to the conversation. But maybe I will. I would certainly like that.

Again, I want to thank 49Writers for this forum. They do great work for this state, and they are great advocates for writers. We are lucky to have them. So go sign up for a class, attend an event, and keep writing!

2 thoughts on “James Engelhardt: Obsessions”

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful posts, James. Today's will help me focus on what I write about, and why–good things to ponder.

  2. I agree. Writing your obsessions seems right. Working on a novel, I believe that my best writing is the writing I'm afraid to let people read. I once received a note back from a well-known author who responded to my fan letter. He said: "Tell the Truth".

    Combine the truth and obsessions and you will be afraid of your writing.

    Bill Hanson

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