I just finished listening to a podcast called S-town. It’s a tough and amazing story, though not for the faint of heart, cursing-wise and other-stuff-wise, but I fell in love with the main character, John B, by the end of the first episode.
(The skinny: A resident of S-town, Alabama, John B. emails the folks at National Public Radio’s This American Life, imploring them, somewhat relentlessly, to come down from New York and help uncover a covered-up murder. The nice folks at TAL do indeed head south, and the S-town podcast is born.)
After listening to the first episode, I texted my husband the link to the podcast with this message: You have GOT to listen to this. The main character is fantastic. You will love it.
My husband listened to the first episode. He liked it. He didn’t love it.
I couldn’t figure out why this man I loved so much (my husband) didn’t love this other man I loved so much (John B.) until I started listening to the second episode. And then it hit me: John B. and I were cut from similar cloths. He felt familiar.
While he is not someone with whom I’d want more than a podcast relationship, I felt a kinship with this Alabaman. Why? Because John B. obsesses. He cannot stop thinking about things like climate change, making a hedge maze, caring for stray dogs, climate change, and don’t forget climate change. He says he hates where he lives. He cannot abide the racism or the lack of quality education. He cannot believe people don’t care that polar ice caps are melting. He counts minutes and repairs old clocks and determines the meaning of a life well lived, and he is terrified that people are not paying attention to, for example, climate change. I think it was the second episode where he says something to the effect of, IS ANYONE PAYING ATTENTION?
I wonder that very question a hundred times a day.
A few weeks ago, we had a sunny, perfect Seattle-weather day. My husband and I sat outside, watching our puppy go nuts over a squirrel that was fifty feet up the huge pine tree in our tiny yard. Up on his hind legs, the pup was barking and chewing at the tree bark as if he were part beaver. It’s not healthy, his squirrel obsession. But it feels familiar.
Before the squirrel arrived, my normal husband and not-so-normal I were talking about Ariana Grande concerts, refugees, politicians, the deaths by suicide of Chris Cornell, an 8th grader in our community and a 7th grader in the next town over. I talk about these topics quite a lot, mostly because I want to understand how certain things happen, and why they happen, and is there anything I can do to stop them from happening? And again with my threadbare question, Is anyone paying attention?
I took a breath. I asked my normal husband, “Does it bother you that I can get a little … obsessed?”
He smiled. “No,” he said. “I just don’t get as focused as you do.”
Focused. My man is sweet.
I bet most of us here at WU are intrigued by the “focus” we see in others. We might not want to spend hours and hours with someone as focused as John B. We might want to spend zero hours with John B. But I bet most of us are intrigued by those who share our ability to doggedly gnaw on an idea or a mental challenge, to pursue a desire to drill down into the life of a make-believe character and a make-believe story world, striving to make sense of it. I bet most of us here at WU ask this same question: Is anyone paying attention? And I bet most of us are willing to wake up too early or stay up too late and over-noodle and choose our laptops over social activities because we need to be people who pay attention, both to the world and to the stories that poke at us.
Aren’t you at least a little obsessed with the story you are writing? Or, maybe you’d say you’re not obsessed but passionate. At least immensely focused? Potato, potahto.
And if you are, well, I think that’s a good thing. I think we must care deeply about a slice of the world and at least one imaginary person living in that world-slice, and we must care deeply about what that one person wants and for some reason cannot get. We must care so deeply that we are willing to spend thousands of hours getting to know that person, mining his life and his world and then telling his story.
If we are not passionately, obsessively focused, we will give up the moment we hit a speed bump. There are infinity speed bumps we can hit while writing a novel.
Our protagonists must also be obsessed with something or someone. They must possess a desire that feels greater than any hurdle. And as hurdles get higher, so too must our protagonist’s desire. So must our protagonist’s obsession to gain, achieve, receive, feel, crush, succeed, overthrow, avenge, control, win, survive. If it takes one to know one, then our obsessive tendencies will serve our characters well.
The writer Lorrie Moore suggests instead of writing, we should look elsewhere for a career. “Only write,” she says, “if you have no choice.” She continues, “First, try to be something, anything, else.”
That’s good advice.
But I think most of us here are doomed to live a writer’s life. And if we are doomed, well then it’s good to be obsessed with a story, even if for the moment, that story looks like a squirrel fifty feet up a pine tree, and there we stand at the bottom, chewing at tree bark, wishing we had wings, a chainsaw, heck, even a butterfly net, but also knowing that our passionate, obsessive focus will serve us far better than a silly little butterfly net ever could.
Let’s chat! The longer I write, the more I see certain fixations and questions revealing themselves in my stories. Is the same true for you? What obsesses your protagonist? Do you believe that all successful (however you define that word) writers need to have an obsessive element of their personality? Thank you for sharing. And thank you for paying attention … because I know you do.
Image compliments of Flickr’s torbakhopper.