Obsession and the Writer

You probably don’t need to know the history of how rubber bowling balls were supplanted by polyester were supplanted by polyurethane, and how that mirrored the change in lane surfacing from shellac to lacquer to water-based finishes. You don’t need to know why the warranty of the Columbia Sur-D bowling ball of 1974 was voided by the mere fact of drilling its finger holes, what a Yellow Dot serial number beginning with 8R represents, what the Brunswick LT-48 stands for. But I do.

You probably don’t need to know the difference in staple length between the fleeces of a Polwarth and a Blue Faced Leicester and a Romney, the difference between clockwise twist and counterclockwise twist (and which one is called S-twist and which is called Z-twist). You don’t need to know the appropriate fibers used on a treadle wheel and on a great wheel, the implications for household domestic production when the bat’s head was supplanted by the Amos Minor accelerating head. But Nora does.

These are the practices that mark us, the bodies of knowledge that come from a life of attentive focus, the things that we just know, the things that don’t matter outside our small universe.

Our fictional characters are no different. They are imprinted by their obsessions, the knowledge that they have sought out in the pursuit of that one great thing. Robert and his billiards, Tim and his choral music, David and his table tennis, Gwen and her mathematics, Clay and his focus on receptivity and hosting. Samuel and his wood tools, Rebecca and her flax. In order for readers to truly see these people whole—not merely see what they do but the spiritual force that drives them—readers need to be introduced to those obsessions. We’ve all played pool, and so we fall back on our kindergarten-level understanding of what pool is and what it means until we’re guided into a deeper understanding of its precision and its variety, its risks and its pleasures. You cannot understand Robert until you understand the galaxy of possibilities that are contained within those rails, and the ways that he considers them. You have to see the table through his eyes, and through his thirty years of history with the games that can be played on—and around—that cloth.

The danger, the delicate balance that writers walk, is between showing too little of the obsession, and having readers say, “yeah, he plays darts, so what?” — and showing too much, introducing the detail between knurled and smooth dart barrels, between oval and fan-tailed dart flights, between the thick round wires that separated scoring zones of your parents’ generation of dartboards and the thin oval wires that separate the scoring zones of contemporary tournament boards. We’re always searching for that precise recipe of showing enough detail that you’re carried into the secret world, but not so much that you’re either overwhelmed or bored with it all.

And a character’s obsession is a vastly powerful tool for the writer, because it shows you character like nothing else can. Show me the thing that she’s learned for decades, that she’s drawn back to endlessly, and I can tell you everything else I need to know about her. It’s not merely action, it’s why that action matters so much.

There’s been lots of articles about the Netflix adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit, and Nora and I both enjoyed the show enormously. But if you really want to understand Beth Harmon, you have to read the 1983 novel. Walter Tevis gave us a character who didn’t really want to be the best chess player in the world, not really. What she wanted was a life in which everything was as pure and clear as the chess board, in which strategy and analysis were the water of life. The writer Sarah Miller said that she recommended the book to her friends this way:

I promised them that anyone who has ever felt lost, rejected, or underestimated while nurturing a fierce, mute hope that something residing deep within them might somehow save their life would love this book.

Sarah Miller, “The Fatal Flaw of ‘The Queen’s Gambit’,” New Yorker, December 1, 2020

That’s what obsessions do for us—that fierce, mute hope that enlivens us in the face of all else. And that’s what the writer risks everything to portray, even as we know that one drop too much will spoil the meal.

We walk our readers right up to the edge of tolerance, even as we know that some are daredevils who’d prefer to go further and others want to stay protected a hundred yards back. I don’t really know where that boundary lies for any individual reader, so I’m left with my own judgment. Worse than that, I’ve done the research that it’s taken to know what matters and why, which makes me already an unreliable judge of the tolerance of others. My frontier of interest is way further out than most people’s just because I’ve spent months to know the things that this character must know. I’m no longer a representative reader; I’ve been infected by some of that obsession myself.

Writers must allow ourselves to be carried down the same stream as our characters. We have to know what they know, fear what they fear, want what they want. If we hold them distant, our writing will instantly fail, schematic and flat instead of lived. And then, after the story is told, we step away from it, try to regain some distance from those obsessions, decide on the appropriate reduced dosage for our readers’ benefit. And we’ll likely be wrong. It’s the hardest decision a writer will make, I think, because it asks us to empathize with not our characters but our readers, far more imaginary and less understood. We haven’t lived with YOU for months on end, after all.

So when a writer goes overboard with the details of a profession or a way of life, know that they’re doing it not to show off, not to mansplain, but from a place of love and enthusiasm. We commit errors of exuberance, knowing that when it works (once in a rare while), it’s perfect.