Rattle & Pen: Fascination and the Creative Mind

Rattle & Pen is a biweekly column exploring the liminal space between raising children and creating art.

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I’ve been thinking this week about obsession—or, more specifically, obsession as a trait of the creative mind. This connection between creativity and obsessive tendencies is nothing new, of course. When we think of artists, in fact, we think of their compulsion toward creative production and perfection. (I have in mind here Kerouac, sleepless and high, sweating into his t-shirts while On the Road clattered from his fingertips and onto that first-draft scroll. Or of Picasso painting repetitively, tirelessly, in his last years, as if driven to wear out his genius before his body could no longer keep up with it. Or—an extreme case—of Yayoi Kusama and her beautiful, obsessive dots.) There is a well-recorded history of artists obsessing, immersing themselves in their work and closing out the external world so that the internal creative impulse may dive and flutter and swim itself toward completion, exhaustion.

What has prompted my own reflection on this, however, is much less artistic than maternal. My children have discovered the musical Hamilton (and yes, I know they’re about a year behind the rest of the world on this one). They love it. (No really, they love it.) My ten-year-old son in particular wants to listen to the soundtrack on a continuous loop. He has memorized several of the songs and walks around the house muttering their lyrics at high speed under his breath. For Christmas, which is still weeks off, he’s asked for a biography of the historical figure on whom the musical is based, Alexander Hamilton. And yesterday (November 2nd), he told me he’s already planning for Halloween next year, when he’ll dress as the Marquis de Lafayette. His imagination has been snagged, caught, and he’s now running out the line, obsessed.

I’m not surprised by this fascination. My son has had creative obsessions for as long as I can remember. Before Hamilton, it was the periodic table. He and a friend from school discovered a book on the topic and became engrossed. They spent every recess drawing cartoon figures to represent the elements. At home, my boy closed himself into his bedroom every night after dinner to work on a comic he was making about hydrogen and oxygen. (Spoiler: they get together and save the world from drought!) Last summer, his obsession was the Greek Gods. Before that, dragons. Before that, monsters. I could go on. Creative obsession is part of the kid’s makeup, his identity, his way of perceiving and processing the world—as it is for most young children (at least until the rigid structures of our adult world begin to blunt the fine blades of their imaginations).

As a parent, this kind of obsessive creative interest can be both delightful and taxing. The boy needs an audience for his mental whirling, and I am that audience. (Most of the time I can be cool about receiving yet another fifteen-minute lecture on the intricate classification system he’s developed for his notebooks of hand-drawn dragons, but on those nights when he wakes me up at two or three a.m. to listen to a verbal treatise on the subject, I’m decidedly less polite.)

As a writer, though, I admire my kid’s obsessions, and sometimes I envy them. I, too, know the happiness and challenge of living in that consuming creative state. I know what it feels like to care about nothing but the single focus of my fascination—to lose my sense of time and self and the larger world because I’ve swum so deep inside my creative process that I can’t see the surface anymore. That abandonment of everything but the work at hand is thrilling and jangling and dreamy, and I miss it.

Motherhood, I’ve found, doesn’t leave much room for abandonment of the physical, immediate world. When, I’ve been asking myself this week, was the last time I was truly submerged in my creative process? And, anyway, when would I fit in such submersion? Between cleaning up the dinner dishes and packing tomorrow’s school lunches, maybe? Between the moment I wake up in the blue-black darkness and the moment a small voice calls to me from the other room? (“Mama? Is it day yet?”) I can’t seem to find the time to be fascinated.

But here’s what I’ve learned in my decade of this dual life as mother and writer: This too shall pass. (Okay, so I’m not the first to land on this bit of wisdom. That doesn’t diminish it for me.)

When my son was an infant I experienced the deepest, most consuming fascination I’d ever known, and it centered on him. In the hours of their sleep, when I told myself I ought to be writing, I instead sat rocking him, looking at his tiny face, stroking his silky head. What am I doing sitting here when I could be working? I’d think, but I couldn’t look away. I didn’t want to. I was obsessed, submerged, in love, and there was no room left in me to care about anything other than my baby. In those early years, this worried me. I wondered what motherhood had done to my creative mind. Had I poured all my creative impulses into the making of this little human? Would there ever be anything that could swallow me whole the way that loving him had?

I found the surface again, though, as all mothers do. That baby became a toddler and then a preschooler—a big kid. He needed me less. My hormonal connection to him ebbed. I got some sleep. And now and then, when I had a quiet moment to myself, I felt once more that old creative tug.

Eventually I started writing again, and since then, there have been periods—long periods, even—when my creative life has swelled and the tide of it has pulled me happily under, just as it used to do. I’ve finished big projects and small (but intense) ones. I’ve been able to disappear for a week here, two weeks there, to a residency or retreat where I’ve been able truly drown myself in the work as I still can’t ever fully do at home.

Honestly, though, the biggest shift in me has been one of understanding. I’ve learned that creative work doesn’t require obsession and submersion in the self as I once believed it did. It’s not sexy to say so, but art can be made on a schedule, and that’s how I work now—around swimming lessons and class planning and supervising the nightly bedtime routine. Two mornings ago, I woke up an hour earlier than anyone else in my household so that I could write. I got two paragraphs down before I was called out of my creative haze to help with breakfast. That would have seemed like nothing to my old, pre-parenting self, but today I recognize that two paragraphs is better than a blank page. Perhaps I don’t have the time to dive under, but I can dog paddle for days now.

In the car on the way home from school this week, my son again requested the Hamilton soundtrack, and so we played to it, top to bottom, as we drove. From the backseat, he tried to keep up with rolling lap of the lyrics, and I listened to his voice repeating Lin Manuel Miranda’s gorgeous lines—lines that, by Miranda’s account, sometimes took him months and months to get right. It struck me that part of what my son loves about the soundtrack is the loop of creativity it connects him to—the obsessive writer Hamilton as the subject of the obsessive writer Miranda as the subject of my son’s own obsessive listening. “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” the lyrics asked again and again from our car speakers. “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” my son echoed in the backseat. It made me smile.

I don’t know when this fascination of his will dry up, nor what will come of it for him creatively, but I know enough about the creative process now to be certain that he’ll find another channel to swim, another inlet to explore, another current to tow him under. And so will I.

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