A friend from my grad school days was recently in town to do a reading from his new book, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld (Graywolf Press). In this creative nonfiction memoir, Justin Hocking writes about his move to New York City after grad school and a difficult breakup, and how he becomes obsessed with surfing, the ocean, and Moby-Dick. It’s a fascinating mix, told with raw honesty and wry humor.
It was great seeing Justin and having the chance to catch up a little; it had been twelve years since we’d completed our MFAs and gone our separate ways. Reading Justin’s book has been a somewhat odd experience. The book is excellent. But it’s weird reading such a personal “story” about someone I know. When we were in writing workshops together, I recall some of Justin’s stories involved skateboarders and I knew he was heavy into skateboarding himself, but I never knew how much this sport dominated his life.
Justin’s book shows how skateboarding is replaced by surfing in New York. It gets him outside the suffocating city, and this new attachment with the ocean helps him overcome anxieties related to his dislocation. Surfing becomes an obsession and an escape. In fact, there are all kinds of obsessions in this book. It’s got me thinking about the role of obsession to writers in general. That is, is it necessary to have obsessions to be a writer? Or do writers write because they have obsessions they’re working through?
For myself, I’m well aware of my own obsessions and how they affect what I write. (Well, at least some of them.) Specifically, as I wrote in “Yellowstone: The Story Generator,” I’ve been writing about Yellowstone National Park for about fifteen years now. My attachment to Yellowstone, and other national parks, goes back to vacations when I was fairly young and learned an appreciation for these protected, wild areas.
In Yellowstone particularly, you also encounter a huge dose of history—it is, after all, the world’s first national park, established in 1872, while each of the three states in which it lies (Wyoming, Montana, Idaho) were all still pre-statehood territories. The story surrounding the development of Yellowstone seems to me to be a condensed version of the whole history of the American West. You’ve got it all in Yellowstone—railroad monopolies, conservation efforts, Indian wars, prospectors and trappers, the occasional brilliant politician mixed with a load of cronyism.
I love history, but I’m not a historian. The challenge with this material has always been to present the park and its history through compelling fiction. The collection I’m now actively working to bring together includes stories set in different historical periods and features a variety of tones or moods. Several characters appear in multiple stories, showing up at different times in their lives. Through it all, the park itself becomes a sort of character—in fact, the one constant, the one we see through from its wild infancy to a staid maturity in our modern times.
In addition to my obsession with this place, I also have an obsession with writing characters who are obsessed, who follow their passions sometimes to the point of destruction. And that leads me back to Justin’s book again, particularly in how he weaves his story with Moby-Dick and the characters of Ahab and Ishmael. Of course, not all obsession pull you down; Justin’s surfing trips to Montauk and Rockaway didn’t drown him but instead brought healing. And also gave him material about which to write a mighty fine book. An obsession did that.
I still wonder how many writers are driven by obsessions into what they write. When I think of my current writing group members, I’m pretty sure I see patterns emerging. One woman writes mostly about ghosts and the dead and creepy landscapes, which is what she also tends to share many pictures of on Facebook. Another woman writes stories that always seem to come back to middle-aged women (or sometimes men) pining for an old love from their youth; and for some reason, the lost love’s name always begins with a G (even though the writer’s husband’s name begins with B; probably shouldn’t engage in too much biographical examination of stories in critique group).
I’m curious to hear what other writers think about this idea: Do our obsessions guide what we write? Maybe we’re not always conscious of what those obsessions are, but they could be directing us to revisit topics again and again. Do writers have particularly obsessive natures, which drives them to be writers? Or is there no connection? Tell me your experiences and thoughts on the matter in the comments below.
Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins