ABC’s of Fiction Writing: O is for Obsession

Posted by on Mar 16, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Headshot 2014In a sense, everybody has a private language. –Jasper Johns

Every writer is triggered by something deeply personal; it takes possession of you without knocking on the door or giving reasons. It simply is. In my case, I discovered it has something to do with experiencing a particular weather as a child in Italy, in a  small town in the hills near Venice. We waded in and out of a dense fog all Winter. When I walked to school I turned to look over my shoulder after a few blocks, and my house had disappeared. Sometimes my friends ran ahead and faded except for their voices. I was fond of catching up and finding them, like a bat, through a kind of echo-location. They were right there, and they were not. It feels like I spent most of my childhood playing hide-and-go-seek with reality. It’s only when I started writing that I realized it wasn’t all a game. I saw what fired me up: the interplay of absence and presence, memory and desire, and I have been attentive to listen to this passion and cultivate it. 

Bergamo nella nebbia by Pietro Mastinu

I think that the most important thing for a writer is to identify one’s original drive and friend it, give it trust. There is an unfiltered, primal power to it: it’s an edgy, dangerous, unscripted impulse that is unmistakable. Its tyranny has been my ally, in fact the most powerful of all: I find it essential to give me focus and endurance in my work.  Stories have taken revenge on me when I did not pay attention to their true impulse. They refused to settle for less. They shoved back my lame solutions, roughed me up, in short they put up a mighty fight. I am glad they did: they demanded authenticity.

Pablo Neruda in his poem Poetry speaks of the reason he wrote for the first time  as  ‘…something kicked in my soul...‘ What happened for you? What activates your writing does not have to come from something you love; if it is, it can still be ugly, dark, embarrassing.

Whether that’s pop music, comics, ‘lowbrow’ fiction, soap operas, or anything else, the thing that matters most is what started you writing stories. And so to dismiss the lowbrow is to dismiss the entry point, the gates that opened for so many of us at some magical place and time and drew us or dragged us or danced us into this ridiculous passion for making stuff up.Amber Sparks, electricliterature.com

We all desire in our work a mirror that flatters us, but truth has a glorious, irresistible beauty all of its own. There is a crackling vitality to a story that demands to be told, regardless of its subject. We all recognise this quality as readers: these are the books we cannot put down and we go back to, seduced like the first time. Paraphrasing Richard Ford: Nothing remarkable comes out of consensus.

I just read the stunning Crush by Richard Siken, a collection of poems where love is shown naked, raw, dirty. The lack of self deception is electrifying. 

For a book like this to work, it cannot deviate from obsession (lest its urgency, in being occasional, seem unconvincing). Books of this kind dream big; they trust not only what drives them but the importance of what drives them. When they work […] they are unforgettable. –Foreword to Crush by Louise Gluck

A narrative driven by the centrifugal force of obsession can even do without the frame of a traditional plot without losing momentum, like the extraordinary Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick and Pitch Dark by Renata Adler.  A rush of urgency seems to flood the page, making each moment alive, risky.

Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly. –Franz Kafka

I wish all fellow writers the most magnificent, untamed obsession: may you be possessed.


Rosanna Staffa is an Italian writer living in Minneapolis. A graduate of the Spalding University MFA program in fiction, she has published short stories in a variety of literary journals including The Baltimore Review and The Lascaux Prize 2014. Her plays have been seen on stage in Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and Minneapolis. They are published by Heinemann and Smith & Krause. She is the recipient of a McKnight Advancement Grant, a Jerome Fellowship and an AT/T On Stage Grant. She is an Affiliated Member of The Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis.

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