Obsession x Voice

In my post last month, I talked about a really hard-to-find essay that was written in 1985 (thanks for the fabulous feedback, by the way). This time, I’d like to talk about a very easy-to-find conversation that took place in 2009 between two extremely popular writers/speakers in the tech community (John Gruber & Merlin Mann). The thing about this talk is that pretty much all my geek blogging friends know and love this discussion, and not one of my non-geek literary friends knows what I’m talking about when I mention this discussion. But I think this talk is oozing with insight for anyone that creates anything. It shouldn’t be limited to geeks. It shouldn’t be limited to bloggers. They talk about two essential qualities for success when creating something: Obsession & Voice. We writer types are always talking about voice — so that’s no surprise — but I hadn’t thought as much about obsession, both for my writing process and for the characters I write about.

In my five-minute video tribute, I illustrate what this talk means to me as a novelist and as a goofy presentation maker. I’ve swiped some excerpts from their talk (accompanied with my third-rate animations) to give you a feel for the parts that hit me the hardest. I even try to draw a stick figure dropping his pants to tease out some of the charm of these two people.

After you check out the video, you might want to read John Gruber’s preface to this talk here.

And if you didn’t already click through to the audio link via Gruber’s site, you can get to the (one-hour) audio file directly from Merlin’s blog here.

Have I linked you to death by now?

If not, then what do y’all think? Do you think obsession and voice are essential elements in your own writing? And do you find it refreshing to look outside the literary community for insight into your writing process?



About Yuvi Zalkow

Yuvi Zalkow writes and worries in Portland, Oregon. His stories have been published in Glimmer Train, Narrative Magazine, Carve Magazine, and others. His first neurotic novel is now available. He is working on a second novel (about one Jew obsessed with napkins and another Jew in the Klan). He recently received an MFA from Antioch University, which makes him feel official.


  1. says

    I’m so glad I finally have a computer that lets me download video fast enough I could watch your post. I love the pairing of obsession and voice, because our obsessions are where voice comes from, I believe. And your stick-figure animations are great, but then, I’m kind of partial to stick figures…
    Lara Schiffbauer´s last blog post ..Twitterstruck

  2. sharona rice says

    Thank you thank you! I love your poop joke-filled, shitty drawinged presentation so much that I am going to give an hour to their talk. Because I am obsessed with a story that I just can’t figure out how to tell (voice) and I want to learn to do the shit out of it.


  3. says

    I have to admit that my heart does a little happy dance when I see a new Yuvi post here on WU. Stick figure delivered inspiration and wisdom being my preferred method for learning anything. (It works, it really really works!)

    Back before I knew better, I had the idea that what it took to produce great writing was bushel baskets of idea and obsession. While obsession is good–it is in fact a big part of what keeps me planted in the chair (nee, with pants on), it’s only a piece of the puzzle. The actual key did turn in my head eventually, which is to say that the essential link between idea, character, and a great story is voice. The thing is, voice doesn’t always come so easily, but we have to keep working at it until it arrives. Until it does we can’t really proceed. Without voice the writing lies silent. It may very well exist on paper, but no one can hear it.

  4. says

    I love you, Yuvi! I mean, I love your posts. Your voice is soothing and your geeky cartoon figures are funny.
    Thanks for starting my Sunday off in a positive way.
    And it’s SO great that they added you to WriterUnboxed. You have a simple way of saying what you want to say without adding a bunch of bull**** that gets in the way.
    Patricia Yager Delagrange´s last blog post ..Interview with Karen Cote, Author of Erotic Deception

  5. says

    Hi! I love this idea of obsession! I don’t see how anyone could write compelling fiction without being consumed by a story and it’s characters. I actually have a line on my website, in which I’m describing my MS on submission, that says: “I’ll admit to being moderately obsessed.”

    Unless your obsessed you won’t be able to put in the work in takes to finish the book, revise it, land an agent, and (as we all are hoping!) get published. Our love for our characters makes us stick it out through the rough spots.
    Stephanie Alexander´s last blog post ..Somewhere You Feel Free

  6. says

    Thank you for the great feedback and comments! (My internet connection is very sketchy from this hotel room where I’m at, but hopefully this’ll go through. I’ll keep it short just in case.) Stephanie: “moderately obsessed”. I love that phrase. I agree with your take on being obsessed. Thank you so much Patricia and Barbara and Sharona and Lara and Eve and Yaniv and Alex for the supportive feedback. I was initially nervous about writing blog posts because (even though I’m connected to the tech world) I’ve had my head in the sand with regard to blogging… but I’m having a really fun time here at WU… Thank you thank you thank you!

  7. says

    I’m an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, and what you say here about obsession + voice is so spot-on that I’m going to be making all my students at an upcoming workshop watch your post. Bravo! I’m also going to be wading back into my own work-in-progress to amp up my characters’ obsessions. I love that — obsessed writer, obsessed character.

  8. says

    Heather: Yes. That Ira Glass video is another thing that I keep on heavy rotation. It’s incredible. I particularly love how he uses himself (when he was very young) as an example of what not to do with regard to storytelling…

    Jennie: So glad you liked that take on obsession + voice. And thanks for sharing it with your students!…
    Yuvi´s last blog post ..Holy Crap! I’ve been fireballed and kungfugripped!

  9. says

    Funny little addendum to this video.

    It turns out that both John Gruber and Merlin Mann really liked this video about their talk. They both linked to the video. And because of this, my website (which normally gets 50 hits per day, as I mentioned in my video) got in the neighborhood of 10,000 hits per day for a few days!


    What’s my point? I don’t know.

    But, wow!
    Yuvi´s last blog post ..Holy Crap! I’ve been fireballed and kungfugripped!

  10. says

    Great video. I do always love these presentations.

    And, I appreciate, too, what Stephanie said about obsession. This novel writing business takes so much work, I can’t imagine trying to do it without a little insanity — I mean, obsessing.
    Christi Craig´s last blog post ..Right here, right now.

  11. says

    Christi — thanks for the kind words. yes… as you can tell, I’m currently obsessed with trying to characterize and communicate and understand the qualities of a writer, particularly a novel writer…

    Lisa — Thanks for watching my presentations. Yeah, I enjoyed thinking about it in terms of delighting…
    Yuvi´s last blog post ..Where Yuvi Lowers His Audience’s Expectations