Find Your Obsession

Pretty much everyone out there, particularly the creative-minded folks, are passionate about something. They spend hours researching that hobby or interest; they work and work at improving that craft or skill; they can get into furious arguments with dear friends over that one issue. We all have our obsessions. But we often relegate these obsessions to a small corner of our lives instead of letting our obsessions inform our work and our writing. Political junkies, for example, are experiencing their Christmas these days as we get down to the final days of the presidential campaign; they might spend hours a day going over polls and examining the data on FiveThirtyEight, but it wouldn’t occur to them to write about politics in their writing. Sports nuts can’t bear to miss the latest game, but for some reason sports never appear in their stories. Why aren’t we using our best resources?

Today I want to encourage you to actually use what you know best. This isn’t quite “write what you know”; after all, those political junkies may never have held public office themselves, and many a sports fan has never kicked a ball or held a racquet. It’s more about “write what you are obsessed with.”

Think about it. You’ve spent hundreds, if not thousands, of hours thinking about that one little corner of the universe that you love. You’ve researched, whether deliberately or through observation and osmosis. You know the lexicon of the world (more on this and its importance in another post). You know what the challenges and tensions are within that obsession. You understand what people struggle with, whether it’s perfecting the bicycle kick, learning the reverse garter stitch, or capturing the coveted soccer-mom demographic. These are just the sorts of specific details that make writing feel rich and well-observed.

So stop trying to write a vague, ungrounded story about another failing marriage or death in the family. Instead, ground the story in your obsession. Give us a character who’s a math major and let him tell us about the fascinating mathematical theories you love. Make your character a champion Cricket player and let American readers into the world of a sport the rest of the world plays! As John Updike said at one point, we read to hear news of another world; the world that you’re obsessed with is the perfect place for us to start.


  1. mary brady says:

    Gee whiz. I don’t know about this. I guess I could write a short story about income tax law after being a CPA so long, but even the Wall St. Journal said, years ago, that you’d see a movie called: ‘Bill Davis, Space Actuary!’ before you’d see one about a CPA, especially one who specialized in taxation.

    Still, tax law gets my blood pumping. For example, I just KNEW Romney paid zip in taxes & that is why he’d never release his tax returns.

    Sure enough, yesterday Bloomberg Business News found out that Romney has NOT paid any taxes since 1997, when he created a “Charitable Remainder Uni-Trust” with the Mormon Church as its ‘beneficiary.’ Romney got a HUGE charitable deduction that he has ‘carried forward’ every year to zero out any tax he has due.

    These “charitable remainder uni-trusts’ were outlawed a few years after 1997, but existing trusts remained untouched. Like Romney’s. And since the stock market has done SO poorly since the tech bust in 2000 followed by the 2008 meltdown, the actual ‘gift’ that will be ‘the remainder’ going to the Mormon Church will be almost nothing.

    The whole idea is that the gift (of stock) APPRECIATES while giving Romney mandatory payouts of non-taxable money each year. Oops.So, Romney played it just right: he got a huge deduction based on ‘expected appreciation,’ he got annual payouts, & he ultimately gives away worthless stock…truly brilliant.

    Now–how do I write a GRIPPING story about things like this? Actually, it shouldn’t be too hard. From gangsters like Al Capone to gangsters like Michael Milken & Bernie Madoff, it has been the bookkeeper &/or tax accountant that finally brought them down. All these guys treated their accountants like dirt, not realizing the accountants had exactly the info that would put them in jail.

    I once attended a very boring party. After a half hour, I was about to split when someone asked me a tax question. According to my friends at the party, my muscles immediately rippled, sweat broke out on my upper lip, & I spoke with great animation for quite some time. Taxation really must be at least ONE of my obsessions.

    I also enjoy walks on the beach & dining out.

    Maybe I could write a story about a tax accountant trying to write a Personals ad…

    (I saw one Personal ad here in Berkeley that said: “Dining out is NOT a hobby.” Boy. Some people are so picky.)

    L&K, MerryB (from Halloween through SuperBowl, i.e., ‘the holidays,’ this is how I spell my name.)

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