Make a list of your obsessions, the writing exercise instructed. Keep adding to it, over the day, then put it in a drawer for a week. At the end of that week throw it away without looking at it, and write another list, that you will keep.
I had an old A4 envelope ready for the recycling bin. ‘Why not?’ I thought. Seeing them written down might help me to manage my time.
Now, my writing is quite large, when not confined to lines, so I’d like to make clear that filling the long edge of that envelope with bullet points shouldn’t be assumed to signify anything. A few hours later, though, as I found that even by reducing my writing font down several sizes, a last thought wouldn’t fit on the same side as the rest, I felt a qualm. Did I really do all of these things, regularly?
I read through them, looking for things to cull. Maybe I’d exaggerated. Were they really, all obsessions? What was an obsession, anyway?
I realised I wasn’t sure. A quick look at the Cambridge dictionary gave me two definitions. First, something or someone that you think about all the time. Well, clearly I didn’t, couldn’t, think about every item on my list all the time. If I did, nothing would ever get done, and I do have a life.
The second definition said it was, the control of one’s thoughts by a continuous, powerful idea or feeling, or the idea or feeling itself. If anything, that offered the potential to lengthen my list. But it was closer to the idea I’d had when I started, and maybe justifies the number of things I mull over as I go through my day.
I put the list aside, and forgot it, not for one week, but two. When I saw it again, I remembered that I wasn’t to read it, and dropped it in the bin.
I had five minutes to spare. I opened my notebook and wrote, ‘Obsessions‘ at the top of a page.
Oddly, the first word that came to me wasn’t a physical activity, it was described an emotion. I paused. My first list had been constructed from activities, for instance reading, and blogging. I wrote my word down, quickly, then added those two remembered ones.
‘Don’t rush it,’ the instructions had said. ‘Let the second list build naturally, over the next few days.’ That was easy, I was busy, in and out of the office, house and garden. I put the notebook away. I could remember most of what I’d originally written anyway. Days passed.
I must have been aware of it waiting, because at unexpected moments I’d come up with a word that needed to be added. It was never anything I’d written that first time round.
I kept reading back through this new list, wondering why I was reluctant to mirror my first version. I knew I could have, easily. By the end of the week that thought began to niggle, but I still had other things to do.
The sub-conscious is a wonderful tool. I woke up the next morning with a short phrase, and an idea. Completing things, I wrote.
Then I checked through the list again and confirmed my suspicions. The reason I’d not wanted to add my original list to this one was that it was already there, condensed under headings like, environment and work.
For years, I’ve been reading accounts of novelists who, on completing the first draft of their novel lock it in a drawer and start writing it again, from scratch. I could see the principle made sense, though I’ve never, until now, tried it. I think I’m likely to repeat this trick with my short prose.
I just wish I could remember where I found this exercise. I can’t. I noted the instructions on a scrap of paper, and even that has been lost.
* Paintings: top and bottom, by Kitagawa Utamaro. Middle one by Tori Kiyomitsu.