My wife wants to know what I’m doing.
“Sitting alone in a room is a strange way to pass your time,” she says, “and on a hot Summer’s day; it’s almost noon.”
“I don’t have a choice,” I say. I don’t look away from the computer screen, and my fingers still move across the keyboard. “I have to get this finished.”
“You’re obsessed,” she says.
“I’m not obsessed,” I say. “I’m just focused.”
She closes the door and leaves me to it, but we both know she’s right.
I like focusing on a single idea for hours at a time, but that’s the shiny side of the coin, the side I show to the world.
I considered calling this article ‘Focus On a Single Idea’, but that would have been a sanitised version of what I’m about to tell you. The other side of the coin, the side of obsession, is grubbier to look at, but don’t mistake its value.
First, there’s the American author, Jack Kerouac.
He wrote the first draft of his beat novel On the Road, in three weeks. Kerouac was so obsessed with his idea for a post-war road-trip novel, he typed his manuscript single-spaced without margins or paragraph breaks.
He was fuelled on amphetamines and coffee but what Kerouac put into (or poisoned his body with) isn’t the kind obsession I’m describing.
What people leave out from this story is Kerouac obsessed about his idea afterwards, and he spent another five years editing that manuscript before it was published. He worked at that idea, long after there was sense or reason.
The story of writing a manuscript in a hot three week burst of creativity appeals to those, who want a quick-fix or a shortcut, but almost all real, lasting, creative work is harder and more time-consuming than anything you can achieve in three short weeks.
Because it’s hard.
You get in from a day, grinding out widgets, stacking shelves, or pushing numbers from one cell to the next. Your back aches, and you want nothing more for the day than to sit on the couch and bath in the warm glow of easy television.
This is so much easier than going back at it. I deserve to relax. Why should I bother with more work?
When you’re called to account, you can point to the reality television programmes you watched and the hours you spent looking at photos of somebody else’s life on Facebook.
Or, you can point to the ideas you stuck with and to what you created, even when everybody said you were wasting your time. You can show what you created.
I get up most mornings before six am. I meditate for twenty minutes, brew strong, sweet coffee, and then I sit at my desk for two hours, until it’s time to get my kids up for school.
My morning routine doesn’t turn me into a better writer or a better person. I don’t even like getting up early; what fun is five am, when you’ve had six hours’ sleep, and you’re missing a warm bed?
On the good mornings, when the rising sun slips in through cracks of my Venetian office blinds, the words and ideas come quickly, and my fingers move across the keyboard; I’m playing the piano.
On the bad mornings, when I’m shivering and longing for the duvet in the other room, I sit at my desk, fiddle with the chair, and open my writing programme. The flashing black cursor and the blank page terrifies me. It’s expecting the momentum of my idea to propel it across the screen and fill the empty, white page with black.
“Don’t look at me like that,” I say. “I’ve got nothing.”
The blank cursor just blinks.
I bang my head off the wooden desk and nurse my cooling coffee. Then, I force myself to press my fingers on the keyboard, to move the boulder an inch up the hill, and keep going until it’s time to stop.
It’s my job to do the same again tomorrow. And the day after that. All that matters is that I turn up.
Here’s the problem:
Many aspiring artists lead lives of quiet distraction.
Even if you could, you’d still face television, the internet, and a thousand other digital distractions that artists of the past could only imagine.
Instead, focus your outer resources on your creative work and reduce or remove anything that distracts you.
Marshall your free money and time towards your most important creative work and commit entirely to the project at hand, postponing or cancelling everything else.
When you do this, you’ll see every decision you face through the gaze of your creative work, and you will ask: “How does this move my work forwards?”
You can focus your inner resources — your cognitive attention and energy — on your most important work, by turning off, disconnecting, disabling, and unsubscribing from whatever you can.
Put aside your thoughts of materials goods or personal image, if only for a while, because these thoughts will do nothing more than sap the limited mental energy you need to create. The obsessed don’t spend hours shopping on Amazon or wandering around the local supermarket, while their work remains undone.
Yes, it’s natural and, sometimes, even productive to procrastinate, but you must start. You must create. You must finish.
You’re not just here to read, listen, or consume. You’re a detective, working a case, and you’re almost out of time.
All you can do is obsess about catching old ideas and connect them, like the detective pinning his pictures of his suspects and their whereabouts to the cork board hanging over his desk.
That’s what real creative work is, and you’re on the hook for it.
Anybody who says otherwise — “I’ve got no great ideas; I can’t think of anything to say” — isn’t doing their most important work.
When you show others what you’ve done, somebody will tell you:
“That isn’t very good. Who do you think you are to say such a thing?
The British author, JK Rowling, obsessed about becoming a writer, since she was six years old.
After graduating university, her marriage broke down, she lost her job and later, she was diagnosed with clinical depression. A single mother, living on benefits, Rowling couldn’t even afford to pay her rent of £600.
“We’re talking suicidal thoughts here, we’re not talking ‘I’m a little bit miserable,’” Rowling said.
Rowling sought help for depression, and she did the work. Instead of locking her clothes away, like Victor Hugo, she wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, using pen and paper in cafés around Edinburgh.
Rowling didn’t worry about her tools or her way of working; she obsessed about her idea.
She also wrote the early drafts of her book on an old typewriter, and if she wanted to change a paragraph, she had to retype the entire paragraph. Later, Rowling even retyped the entire book editor, because it wasn’t double spaced.
When Rowling posted the finished manuscript to a literary agent, he sent Rowling back a slip saying, “My list is full. The folder you sent wouldn’t fit in the envelope.”
The second agent Rowling contacted had more foresight.
You release your idea into the world; you sit back and wait and then… people do worse than criticise your work. They ignore it.
Your heart cracks at the wasted time, effort, and disappointment. You feel like a failure, and life would be so much easier if you didn’t have to do this hot, white creative thing. You think of stopping, of giving up, of doing the easy thing.
You forget the work, itself, is the lesson and the reward. You forget, until you pick yourself up from the dirt and go back at it. You go back at it, hard.
Because you’re obsessed.