Natalie Goldberg on Accepting Your Obsessions

In the book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg writes about how she urges her writing students to accept their obsessions to help them get writing; she has her writing groups “make lists of their obsessions so that they can see what they unconsciously (and consciously) spend their waking hours thinking about. After you write them down you can put them to good use. You have a list of things to write about.”

When it comes to our obsessions, we really are driven. We’re interested. We have unique perspectives and we become fascinating creatures when we talk about them. We should accept our obsessions, whatever they are, because they have a lot of power when it comes to our creative work. Goldberg says, you don’t start writing about politics by thinking you should – you start by becoming obsessed with it: “Start caring about politics, reading about it, talking about it, and don’t worry about what it will do to your writing. When it becomes an obsession, you will naturally write about it.”

When I read this part of the book I got thinking about how I could try and “train myself” to become obsessed with what I think I should write about, as a way to trick myself into writing about something more important. But of course that’s not really the point with this exercise. The point is to accept what I care about a lot now, and just write about that. That’s who I am now, and that’s what I have to offer. Sharing that, I think, is likely to be more helpful or interesting for a reader than me feigning expertise on some issue I think I “should” write about.

This requires maturity and practice to do, and get used to doing.

I listened to an interview with Tavi Gevinson where she talked about how when she first listened to Taylor’s stuff, Tavi was like, “this is not really the kind of love song I identify with or even want to listen to” (the whole heteronormative, boy meets girl, boy breaks up with girl, etc.) Then Tavi interviewed Taylor and Taylor told her about how when she wrote her first album at 14, it was just her responding to the world around her, writing about love as it was being written about in songs that she’d been exposed to. Taylor started off doing what she thought she was supposed to do as a songwriter, and the result was that Tavi didn’t get it.

What she, and maybe other listeners, might have “got” more is if 14-year old Taylor wrote about something she actually did think about a lot then. This would have required a lot more vulnerability and risk and could have been a huge disaster – it certainly wouldn’t have set her up for commercial success in the same way, which is what she was going for I assume, but it would have had a shot at making a deep connection with the few people it did reach.

If this is the goal for our writing – for our readers to get it, and feel got – then practicing our own self-acceptance is unavoidable.

I think it’s a good practice to start writing about what we’re obsessed with now, and trust the process enough to let our understanding and our body of work grow and evolve. Natalie says, the task of a writer isn’t to judge, but to, “say a holy yes to the real things in our life as they exist – the real truth of who we are… to step forward with a yes on our lips so there can be no more noes in the world, noes that invalidate life and stop these details from continuing.”

That’s the direction I want to grow in – more yes, less no, for me, and my audience.

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