One of the exercises we are given at the Star Island writing retreat is to document our obsessions on index cards. Joyce Maynard makes the request the first day for examination later in the week. Strangely, off the top of my head, I can come up with only two - my body and food.
“Have you written down your obsessions yet?” I ask some of the others. Many haven’t but no one else expresses a concern that they have too few, at least not to me.
I’m not sure what we’ll be doing with our obsessions and while it looks like obsessing about the obsessions is becoming an obsession (albeit time-limited and bringing the list up to three), I’m certain I’m not heading in the right direction.
It gets clear as the week goes on that obsessions are one of the keys to writing good memoir and so far I am lacking keys. The odd thing is that I know I have numerous obsessions I just don’t seem willing to land on them.
I want to ask others what their obsessions are but fear, like with writing style, I’d be tempted to plagiarize and stealing other people’s obsessions, even if they mirror my own, is not the point of the exercise.
I put it aside. Stop obsessing about it.
Every morning, as a group, we workshop the pieces we’ve submitted and Joyce nudges, shoves or “publicly” shames us toward the stories she determines we need and want to tell - the interesting bits, the fragments that blow open the story of who we are, why we are, where we are. She cottons on to a phrase, an image, an event tossed off in a sentence or two, buried amidst other ramblings – some very articulate, and exhumes it from its hiding place.
“This,” she says triumphantly, “is what you have to write about.” Often there’s a collective outpouring of breath like she’s pulled a snake out of a hankie. And mostly they are snakes, not bunnies or lovebirds – not the happy, easy things but the harsh trouble-makers.
“This is NOT group therapy,” she repeats a number of times during the week after she’s marked the new writing topic on the white-board, started light interrogation of the subject – “The time your dad shot your beloved pet dog Trixie”, and engaged the rest of us as lawyers in the discovery. Sometimes a battle of wills ensues – a tug of war. “But I don’t want to write about that…”, “I want to tell the story I’m already writing.”
And the winner (almost every time) in the pushy, I’ve-got-way-more-experience-writing-memoir-than-any-of-you corner, (my words – not hers) Joyce Maynard!
All week we go away and rewrite our stories, expand the buried toss-offs and come back to read out loud - tight, tender, moving, tear and laughter-invoking pieces – our snakes conjured by way of new magic writing tools.
Ultimately we could walk away from this time together and write whatever the fuck we want – go back to telling the meandering stories. But I suspect we’d all feel their flimsyness, their skirting-the-issue-ness, their missing-the-obsessions-ness.
Turns out obsessions, while I focus on them all the time, are not something I like to name yet 15 devoted minutes on a rock with my index cards, unearths them - buried just a few dead cells under the surface of my skin. I’m scratching at them all the time. I just haven’t stopped to notice.
Time, fame, talent, failure, illness, fear of flying, kids, body, beauty, weight, exercise, parenting well, parenting poorly, ageing, writing, money, kids, not writing, food, desirability, security, time, age, body, time, time, time, death.