Have your eyes ever glazed over when a friend started talking about football or soccer or some other sport that you could care less about? Have you ever wanted to scream when forced to listen to someone’s endless cell-phone conversation about how intensely excited they were about finding yet another pair of designer shoes? My point is simple: Most of the time, other people’s obsessions are boring.
Not so for us! As writers, our job is to make our obsessions so absolutely fascinating that readers want to come along for the ride — sometimes to the tune of massive numbers of pages. Take the highly regarded writer Cynthia Ozick, who’s just released Foreign Bodies, her sixth novel. She makes no bones about her twin obsessions: literature and Henry James. Cynthia has a raft of awards and a lifelong love affair with writing, which she does longhand sitting her brother’s old desk. As she once put it, nothing matters more to her than a “comely and muscular sentence.” Now that’s a writer for you!
It took her 14 years of struggle to get her first novel published — years in which nobody believed in her but Cynthia O. Here’s how she described that time, “I had such crazy passions then. I was kneeling at the altar of literature. It was Lionel Trilling who said, ‘The novel or nothing.’ Is there a word more passionate than passion? Obsession, total immersion, the feeling that everything else doesn’t matter….I felt very weak because of having no recognition, but secretly very powerful, because I knew I was writing so well.”
Today, things are very different. Despite all her accolades, Cynthia says, “I write now with the raven of doubt sitting on my shoulder all the time.” The raven of doubt. Obsession. Kneeling at the altar of literature. Sounds like a writer all right!