“Talent is cheap — you have to be obsessed, otherwise you are going to give up.”
This week I finished Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which is so prescient it feels like we’re living the prequel. The main character, Lauren, is a young writer who keeps a diary and invents a new religion called “Earthseed” while surviving in an America that has collapsed due to climate change.
I’m trying to speak—to write—the truth. I’m trying to be clear. I’m not interested in being fancy, or even original. Clarity and truth will be plenty, if I can only achieve them.
Any time a character writes things down the story in some ways becomes a story about writing and what the act of writing can do for a human being. (I wonder how many people remember that 1984 begins when Winston Smith buys an illegal diary to write in.)
I was interested in Butler’s ideas about writing before I even read any of her work. (I’ve previously blogged about the positive affirmations she wrote in her commonplace books and her method of reading.)
After finishing Parable, I found a couple of her essays collected in Bloodchild and Other Stories, which are worth reading for any artist.
The first is called “Positive Obsession,” and it tells the story of how Butler became a writer. Obsession, she writes, is simply about not being able to stop. “Obsession can be a useful tool if it’s positive obsession.”
She took archery in high school, and saw positive obsession “as a way of aiming yourself, your life, at your chosen target. Decide what you want. Aim high. Go for it.”
There’s a similar emphasis on persistence in the second essay, “Furor Scribendi.” (A mania or rage for writing.)
Forget talent. If you have it, fine. Use it. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter. As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent.
Persistence, she said, was her most important talent. Sticking with it.
What connects these two pieces, for me, is how much easier persistence is when there’s obsession behind it. (And likewise, discipline is much easier when it’s fueled by desire.)
But obsession, John Baldessari warned us, cannot be willed.
So, in some way, the question to ask yourself isn’t just what you want or need to be doing, but what you can’t stop doing or can’t stop thinking about. That’s your obsession. The thing you cannot will.
Obsession is a living thing. A kind of beast. When you find a positive obsession, an obsession that seems like it can take you somewhere good, you keep feeding it, and you ride the beast until it’s dead.
What obsession looks like pic.twitter.com/p27pUQzX2P
— Austin Kleon (@austinkleon) July 23, 2017