13 December, 2012

Creativity and Obsession

Do creative people need to be obsessive about their art?

It's healthy to take time away from the desk!
I find it hard to think of myself as a creative person. My background is in science and I've never been particularly arty. I don't live in a commune or have dream catchers hanging in my windows. I pretty much never suffer from existentialist crises. I suppose, however, as somebody who creates stories, I am creative. But does that mean I need to be obsessive? Do I need to write every day? Does writing need to be the first thing I think about in the morning?

"I've been called many names like perfectionist, difficult and obsessive. I think it takes obsession, takes searching for the details for any artist to be good." Barbara Streisand

There are tonnes of quotes out there from famous people about being obsessed by what they do. And I'm just not sure they're right. Absolutely you must be passionate about your art. Definitely you need to commit time and energy into learning the craft of what you do. But passion is not the same as obsession. Obsession is not healthy. I watched an amazing talk on nurturing creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert, about how it's not OK for us to accept that creative people are depressed or mentally unstable. Sure, historically many have been, but that doesn't mean it's OK. Obsession kills either the creativity or the person. Maybe you disagree? Maybe obsession is just what it takes to be successful.

"Obsession led me to write. It's been that way with every book I've ever written. I become completely consumed by a theme, by characters, by a desire to meet a challenge." Anne Rice

In some ways I want to be obsessed with writing and proud of it. Don't we all want that story of how much we sacrificed to succeed? Isn't there a little part of us that wants people to admire us for emerging from writing a novel draft with a pale face and nervous twitch, physically and emotionally drained? I feel inferior to other writers by announcing that I'm not obsessed by writing. But I know full well what it's like to be obsessed by something - truly obsessed - and I wouldn't say that to achieve that state would make me a better writer.

I don't write every day. I do go on holiday. I don't think of writing all the time. Maybe that means I'll never be a great writer, but I think it means I'll be a happier person, and hopefully a person who will love writing for life without burning out. I have no sympathy with people who bemoan their lack of success without putting in the time needed both to improve on their art and show it to the world. But there is a line between passionate commitment with a good work ethic, and obsession. In a world where Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is destroying many people's lives, I think we use the word 'obsession' too incautiously.

I love writing and I'll work as hard as I can to get better at it, but I won't be its slave. I don't agree with Meryl Streep that obsession is an attractive thing. I don't agree with John Waters that without obsession life is nothing. Instead, I think I agree with the artist Jim Dine:

"I do not think that obession is funny, or that not being able to stop one's intensity is funny."

But perhaps I'm wrong. Do we need obsession to create good art? What are the signs that somebody is obsessive, rather than passionate? Do you think it matters?


  1. I definitely don't think it's necessary to be obsessive in order to be creative. I'm sure in some cases it can lead to better work, but in general surely we all want to be well-rounded people? It's maybe not so bad for solitary writers, but was thinking when I read the Barbara Streisand quote that she's been called a lot of other things as well by people who've had to work with her!

  2. I don't think you need to be obsessive to be good. When I'm writing and get on a roll, I become maybe a little obsessive. I want to get the words down. I want to finish. But I don't push everything to the side to do it.

    And I don't talk constantly about my writing to others. Or about books even.

    I think it's good to step away sometimes. Because when your work is on your mind all the time, and nothing else is important, people can get hurt along the way. And that's not worth it.

  3. Yeah, I think there's a difference between being temporarily obsessed by a project/plot/character and be obsessive about your art. The former isn't bad and is probably helpful to a certain degree, the latter can be damaging.


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