Writing Your Obsessions

photo by sneakerdog


Therese here. Today’s guest is author Cathy Marie Buchanan, whose second novel, The Painted Girls, released just this week on 1/10. The Painted Girls is “[a] heartrending, gripping novel set in belle époque Paris and inspired by the real-life model for Degas’s Little Dancer Aged 14 and the era’s most famous criminal trials.” It’s an Indie Next pick and a Good Housekeeping book pick, and follows on the well-shined heels of her NYTimes bestselling debut, The Day the Falls Stood Still.  Said Kirkus of The Painted Girls, in a starred review:

Buchanan does a masterful job of interweaving historical figures into her plot, but it is the moving yet unsentimental portrait of family love, of two sisters struggling to survive with dignity, that makes this a must-read.”

I’m so pleased she’s with us today to talk about obsessions–and how writing about them may translate into strong and authentic passages for the reader. Enjoy!

Writing Your Obsessions

Years ago I heard the great Canadian writer Alistair McLeod comment that he did not buy into the old adage of write what you know as much as a broader notion of writing about one’s obsessions.  This, he argued, produces the best work.  While I agree, I’d take it a step further and suggest that a writer’s preoccupations quite naturally find their way into her work.

When I first conceived The Painted Girls, my intention was to write the story of the model for Degas’s beloved sculpture Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.  And that story—Marie van Goethem’s—is there, but soon enough her real life sister was demanding equal time.  In the finished novel, the sisters clash.  They brawl, clobbering and spitting hateful words, but they love each other, too, with the fierceness of a lioness guarding her young.

I think now it was inevitable that the story would hold up a magnifying lens to the mysteries of sisterhood—both the rivalries and the love. With three sisters of my own—each deeply loved by me despite hair-raising teenage rows—I have often found my mind lingering, wondering. What is it that provokes rivalry among sisters? And why is it that so many of us find solace in the strong arms of the sisters we love, that we so readily open our own?  It seems to me no accident that I continued to ponder these questions as I imagined the story of Marie and her sister.

PhotobucketMy experience was somewhat similar for my earlier novel The Day the Falls Stood Still.  I set out to write an account of Niagara’s most famous riverman, a fellow with an uncanny ability to predict the whims of the Niagara river and falls.  And, yes, I told his story, but as I wrote the first draft, my much-loved father died. The depth of my grief was astounding to me, as was my need to sort out what I believed.  Where was my father? Why was he gone? Why had he spent seventy-four years on this earth? Why was I here? Was humankind’s existence entirely accidental? I will not pretend for a moment that I’ve figured any of this out. What did happen, though, was that my bewilderment found a home in the character Bess Heath.  At one point in the story, after suffering a great tragedy, she says, “It is in these moments of despair I most miss the idea of God, the idea that life has meaning, the idea that we are something more than the product of the random variations and natural selection Charles Darwin put forth.”

That her words echo my preoccupation at the time is hardly a surprise.  We take up pen or poise our fingers over a keyboard intent on giving our readers the experience of inhabiting another person, another time, another place.  And that experience is crafted in a mind fixated on faith (mine) or prejudice (Tony Morrison’s) or the environment (Margaret Atwood’s) or knowledge (Geraldine Brooks’s).

What scrap of writerly wisdom I’m hoping to impart?  Brood.  Stew.  Consider.  Be open to your own life intruding on your work.  And as for those nagging preoccupations that poke and prod and just won’t go away—close your eyes and let them mingle with your characters and plot.

The aspects of my work that readers have responded to most strongly are the explorations of sisterhood in The Painted Girls and faith in The Day the Falls Stood Still.  Almost certainly it is from our obsessions—those ideas we spend endless hours turning over in our minds— that our best writing comes.

Readers, you can learn more about Cathy and her novels on her website, and by following her on Facebook and Twitter. Write on!



  1. says


    Very nice article and point. Write your obsessions. That’s much better than writing what you know…releasing your obsessions keeps you sane!

    I think I may need to write about another obsession or two. Get out of this straight jacket. :o)

    Enjoyed your post!

  2. says

    I agree. All of my manuscripts have my obsessions interwoven into the story. There is a lot of drive when I write with my obsessions in mind, but I try not to make them a main part of the story. I use them to help create feeling in my writing, because I want my readers to feel my stories more than anything else.

  3. Linda Pennell says


    What a better way to look at writing. If all we do is write what we know, I suspect very little worthwhile would get written. Our obsessions and/or passions give life to our narratives and drive great literature. Melville, Dickens, Shakespeare, etc. anyone?

    Loved the post!

  4. says

    “Write what you know” is responsible for many great stories being hidden away due to the author’s fears that they “did not know”, therefore would be perceived as liars.
    I mean, look vampire novels? Hello? What exactly would one “know” in order to write about sucking blood from a person’s neck? I mean, ew.
    Writing about one’s obsession or passion adds intense colour to an otherwise black and white canvas.


    What everyone knows: History tells us that Kit Carson arranged for 10,000 Apache and Navajo Indians to go to New Mexico in 1864.

    Passion/obsession:In January of 1864 after having Canyon de Chelly over run by US Army soldiers, the Navajo Nation was forced to surrender into the control of the US Cavalry under the command of Kit Carson. The people were burned out of their ancestral lands, had their water supplies poisoned and had their livestock shot and burned. After a march , on foot in winter, of up to 450 miles across the desert, many Navajo arrived to the prison camp near starvation. Is is estimated that between 2000 and 3000 Navajo people died between 1864 and 1868, when their leaders signed a peace treaty with the US Gov’t.

    See? I may know it, but hopefully now, someone feels it.

  5. says

    Emotion is what makes me want to read anything.

    Also why I write.

    The book sounds interesting though.

    I wonder if it covers how women are portrayed and influenced by society.

  6. says

    Write your obsessions is much better than write what you know. It echoes James Scott Bell’s “Write who you are.”
    Thanks for a great post!

  7. says

    Hi, all,

    In case you didn’t hear it, NPR’s Morning Edition Saturday (today) has Scott Simon’s interview with Buchanan, our guest author here, about her book on Marie van Goethem, Degas, and the actual badness of the “belle” epoque.

    You can read the story and listen here: http://ow.ly/gLau1


  8. says

    If I don’t have a passion about something, my writing lacks life. It is only when I write what I am passionate about that my writing comes to life. Thanks for a great post!

  9. says

    Hi Cathy,

    What a beautifully written post – and an excellent reminder. I agree with ML Swift that this is far better advice than to write what you know. Considering my obsessions each time I sit down to write would be a great exercise. I think we all have mini-obsessions that can be worked into almost every chapter we write and mega-obsessions that could be turned into series!


  10. says

    So glad to read your mention of Alistair MacLeod’s advice for writing! Your follow-up to this is exactly what I have experienced as one’s “preoccupations” do seep into writing projects, it seems to me.
    Great discussion!