Creative Obsession, or Why to Forgo Washing Dishes
Tonight, I attacked the stack of dishes in the sink and the piles of laundry in the hamper, chagrined at the state of my house but satisfied that I’d used my time apart from family and teaching this week to write the best historical essay I possibly could. Louisa May Alcott once said, “Housekeeping ain’t no joke,” and so it isn’t. Just a decade ago, I would clean the toilet, scrub the floors, scour the cats’ litterboxes with sober intensity . . . anything to avoid the work of sitting down to write.
Whenever I speak at conferences and writers’ organizations, people ask me, “How do you have the discipline to complete a polished draft?” Having recently finished a new book-length work of literary nonfiction, I can answer that question clearly now. I owe any discipline I have (for writing, not for eschewing ice cream–there’s no willpower where dessert is concerned) to two books widely available at bookstores and in libraries.
The first is Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way. One of my favorite Northwest colleagues remarked recently that perhaps writing should not be a twelve-step program. I can be pretty naive about such things; with all Cameron’s talk about creative recovery and trusting in a higher power, I missed the connection both times I worked through the twelve-week program. What I do know is that a decade ago, I studied the book and duly wrote out my morning pages and took myself on artist dates (funny how my dates usually involved my friends, Ben and Jerry), and found myself making some major life changes. Honestly, the work I did through Cameron’s book inspired me to quit my job as a full-time special education teacher and restructure my life so that I could work as a freelance writer. The second time I read the book, I found myself inspired to move from California to Oregon. Obviously, it’s a powerful text.
In early summer of last year, editors at The Writer asked me to review another inspirational book–Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions, by psychologist Eric Maisel and his wife, Ann Maisel. Eric facilitates creativity groups online and asks members to state their most cherished goal in writing, then obsess about the project for one month. “In a month,” the authors write, “you could create a business plan and begin to enact it, write enough songs for an album, or track an idea from its first glow to its polished articulation.”
You could also write the rough draft of a novel, screenplay, or nonfiction book.
Both books ask us to honor our work as writers, to take it seriously, even if it means the dishes sit in the sink and the laundry piles up unwashed. (I’d advocate cleaning the litterboxes, though.) Dragging ourselves out of bed at 5 AM to write, or working after the kids go to bed is difficult to do if we’re not receiving the constant affirmation of publication–it requires a leap of faith that can feel like it ends in a plunge into an icy river if you’re met with editorial rejection slips after such sacrifice. But with books such as these on the nightstand, and perhaps a small reward at the end of each productive week (might I suggest Coffee Heath Bar Crunch?) you may feel less tempted to wash the dishes when you’ve got an idea brewing.
Housekeeping ain’t no joke, it’s true, and neither is a commitment to our writing.