Wednesday, 17 June 2009

What's Your Thing?


Obsessive Compulsive

Alcoholic

Exercise-obsessed

Neat/Clean Freak

Gambler

Nicotine/Caffeine addict

Workaholic

Bulimic/Anorexic

Shopoholic

Do you recognize yourself from this list? Don’t be shy, as a writer you are in good company. Tennesse Williams, Dylan Thomas, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Capote were all alcoholics. Honore de Balza drank up to fifty coffees a day and poet Vachel Lindsay was obsessed with cleanliness. Dostoevsky at one time gambled badly and Syliva Plath had an eating disorder. And when I first surfed writing forums on the internet, it tickled me how many authors were fellow obsessive compulsives.

As a child my ‘thing’ was the number four. I had to do everything four times – from touching the gate on the way indoors, to going to the loo before I could sleep – OTHERWISE SOMETHING REALLY BAD WOULD HAPPEN. Then logic kicked in and I decided four times four was safer still, so I had to do certain things sixteen times – OTHERWISE SOMETHING REALLY BAD WOULD HAPPEN. When I was ten, I stayed with an aunt for a week and found out years later that she’d rung my mum to ask if I was ill, because I spent so long in the bathroom every night. Little did she know I was throwing water onto the top of each tap sixteen times (God knows why) - and then doing it again just in case I’d not done it right the first time.

As I matured, I learnt to face my fears and break my routines. And now it hardly features in my life – unless my husband is away and I have to lock up downstairs at night. It almost puts me off going to bed. Check oven hob. Is window locked? Pull down on back door handle – can it be opened? Are the taps turned off? Stare at oven hob again – is the red light on, are the buttons in all the correct ‘off’ positions? Check back door handle again, then the hob once more – OTHERWISE SOMETHING REALLY BAD WILL HAPPEN. And then out of the kitchen and start on the lounge. And then back to the kitchen in case I missed something…

But doesn’t this remind you of something? Like writing? Like editing? Check paragraph, read it out loud. Should that be a dash or a colon? Does that word have a capital letter? Read it out loud again and check that spelling once more – OTHERWISE SOMETHING REALLY BAD WILL HAPPEN like an agent despairing at my mediocrity. And when submitting – print out pristine, throw out that sheet as it is slightly bent. Put a joke in cover letter, no take it out. No, put it back. Tape down envelope – no that was a mistake, pull off tape. Now it looks messy, tape it down again – OTHERWISE SOMETHING REALLY BAD WILL HAPPEN like the agent not even reading it because of my sloppy presentation.

So, take a hard look at that list – what’s your thing? Does it release the writer in you or hem him/her in?

And by the way, being a chocoholic doesn’t count. The cocoa bean should be a staple part of anybody's diet.

28 comments:

Olivia Ryan said...

Oh yes - this is so dangerously true! But I've always thought you have to be slightly bonkers to be a writer. What we do is definitely not normal! Excellent, and very scary post, Samantha.

Samantha Tonge said...

Thank you - and glad it's not just me, Olivia!

When i first started writing and talking to other authors, i must admit, i did experience a feeling of 'coming home' - maybe the bonkers element is what we all have in common:)

Julie P said...

I'm like you Samantha. I have to check and recheck every bit of my manuscripts many, many times and even when it's gone and I know I can't possibly do anything about it now I find myself agonising over it!

I don't have OCD but I should imagine it's a terible strain on everyday life. Julie xx

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Thanks for that very open post, Sam. I too am OCD - like you, have been since a child. With me, it was compulsive hand-washing after a Really Bad Event, together with needing to repeat actions, just as you describe. And like you, it features much less in my life now, but it's around in the background like a whisper much of the time.
The link between this and writing is interesting. I edit as I go, and feel a strong need to 'get it right' before I can go on to the next bit. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, except when it has to be unpicked later.

Susannah Rickards said...

LOL. I'd never made the link between obsessive compulsiveness and editing. That's brilliant Sam. And not just funny - I think you're really onto something there. Yes - if that comma stays in SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN. Hilarious.

I used to have to count every single surface in the space I was in. It got complicated when thinsgs had ridges or bends in them because then the surface was determined by how the light fell on them.

I forced myself to get over it when I realised I'd intentionally missed my tube stop just so I could count the poles and window ledges on the carriage. Have never confessed that before, but splashing water sixteen times over a tap feels like safe company.

At the risk of sounding precious, I do think creative people are more highly sensitized than others and need something to blunt that at times, in order to have a stiller mind. Like wine :)

Sam, my husband is like you. He has to rattle every door and window and lock before we go out. And he's recently started to write...

CarolineG said...

Oh I had to read this through my fingers, it was so cringingly accurate! I too was a bit on the OCD side as a child and young adult, but the funny thing is, writing seems to have helped it in me. I used to get obsessive worries and thoughts going round in my head and I have a bonkers theory about a kind of excess imagination effect. For some reason writing seems to mop up some of this excess and I can pretend to be mostly normal. Hmm, although I'm probably not the best judge of that :)
Great post, Sam.

Diane said...

I think I border on the obsessive compulsive ... :-/

Samantha Tonge said...

Julie, i thought that was only me who checked things once they had gone - ahhhh, speaking to other writers does make me feel more normal:)

A whisper is a very good description of it, Susie. I never told anyone as i child, i don't know whether you did - i think as children we just accept/decide that we are a bit 'weird' and never for one moment think something can be done about it.

Gosh, i've never heard of people counting surfaces, Susannah - have to admit that made me laugh, but i don't imagine it was much fun at the time.
In fact it's reminded me of another strange one i still suffer from - sealing cards in envelopes. I have to take the card out several times to check i haven't written a swear word in it - it's as if i fear i'm suffering from a kind of literary Tourettes...

I know exactly what you mean about the writing mopping things up, Caroline - maybe this links to what Susannah was saying about creatie people being more sensitized...

What a relief i'm in such good company! Thank you for sharing, everyone.

CarolineG said...

We're all as mad as a box of frogs really, aren't we?
Good job we have good company!

Gillian McDade said...

Thankfully, I'm none of these, but I do have a tendency to check and re-check my covering letter and the first three chapters! I've even been known to open the envelope at the post office just to double-check!

Samantha Tonge said...

Oh dear. The voice of reason. I might have to delete Gillian from this thread:)

Nik Perring said...

Great post, Sam. I think I could check more than one of the above boxes!

Samantha Tonge said...

Thanks, Nik. I'm sure a few of us could:)

Jeannette said...

oh god, that is all too true! I doublecheck at the post office, too, and afterwards, when it's over and done and there's nothing I can do about it... Like other commenters I never made the link before with writing and checking/re-checking/re-re-checking the stove.

Am in complete agreement re the cocoa bean. Vital nutrients, absolutely.

LisaG said...

Brilliant post, Sam.

Oh gawd, when I was a kid I used to count the letters in sentences and separate and subdivide the letters into groups of five (although sometimes I went wild and experimented with groupings of three and four ;-) ). And I also used to count surfaces quite obsessively. Like around picture frames, tables and even the surfaces of the vehicles I could see through the window! I only really did it at primary school and told several adults, as I was getting worried about it. My teachers and doctor thought it was because my brain was bored and that it would probably stop when I went to secondary school, which would be a more challenging environment, and thankfully it DID stop. Pretty much straight away. Mind you, secondary school was an intense bloody battle to survive, so there was definitely no room for random counting.

Interesting to read that Susannah had a similar counting thing.

Perhaps that early OCD is channelled into my writing now. Scary thought...

Samantha Tonge said...

Blimey, Jeanette and Lisa, this is really spooky - i was half-wondering if this post would remain comment-less because you all thought i was nuts - but clearly, my experience of fellow writers suffering from OCD is still the case.

It can be debiliating but does have its advantages for a writer, i feel - its the perfectionist in us, i suppose.

How fascinating about the surfaces thing, Lisa and Susannah. I've never heard that one before.

Roderic Vincent said...

Interesting post, Sam.

Anonymous said...

Oh jeez, which of those *don't* apply. I used to count windows all the time. Hadn't thought about that as being part of the OCD thing. In fact, as well as counting them, I then used to have to 'file' them in a particular way in my head, maybe in 4s or something. Can't remember. Argh - scary.

But the whole envelope checking thing, including undoing it, and re-sealing several times, and re printing pages that had a microscopic ink smudge on them - that's not OCD. That's normal - right?

Oh, and then there was the thing with the leaves . . . .

poppy

Samantha Tonge said...

LOL, Poppy.Gawd, it's frustrating enough counting things, let alone filing them...

I wonder if OCD is side effect of the modern world we live in, or whether it has always been around and people just never talked about it.

I'm curious about the leaves now...

Kath said...

I'm a bit OC too, used to handwash and count things as a child. Luckily, I only ever try to write short stories (no longer than 2,000 words) because I have a thing about never repeating a word, not even paragraphs apart! But I do think that writing is one area where being obsessive is actually useful and productive. I wish I was a bit more obsessive about housework though!

Samantha Tonge said...

Me too, Kath. Dust doesn't bother me half as much as split infinitives:)

Fionnuala Kearney said...

OTHERWISE SOMETHING BAD WILL HAPPEN? God, where does this COME from?! It seems we all really relate to this post. I think I'm going to phone you Sam next time hubby's away - takes me about forty minutes to go through the routine which involves looking under every bed in the house!
Sometimes when I look at my writing desk and it's a mess, I realise that this is the rebel in me making a statement. I'm a grown up now, allegedly less governed by OCD moments (Ha!)It's okay to be a bit messy. Breathe... There's no such thing as the writing desk police. Breathe...

Samantha Tonge said...

LOL, Fionnuala!

Yes. Under beds - i have a routine that involves looking for spiders before i switch the lights out.

I think we all need a support group:):)

Rebecca Connell said...

How weird, Sam, I had a thing about the number four too (still do a bit, in fact). I still have to stop myself counting up whatever people say and seeing if the number of syllables total a multiple of four. What a freak.

I'm not a very compulsive editor, though, I must admit - perhaps I should unleash my inner weirdness on my manuscript more.

Lydia said...

LOL Fionnuala: writing desk police! Good job there aren't any. I laughed and nodded my way through all these comments. Thanks for posting this Sam. Completely agree about secondary school being a battle for survival, Lisa, but that's what happens in places like that when you're a "bit different" (for different read mad as a box of frogs!). I think writers always feel outsiders to a certain extent, so it's a good job we've got each other.

Samantha Tonge said...

Well said, Lydia!

Oh god, Rebecca, i'm worried i'm going to pick up everyone else's foibles now! Mustn't read this thread again!!

Jacqueline Christodoulou said...

I've been many of these and remain now only a workaholic. I think this frees me to write more and to be more creatve becuase it's helped me to redefine the word 'work'to include my writing.
Great post.

Samantha Tonge said...

Thanks, Jacqueline. I take my hat off to anyone who holds down a substantial job and writes - i don't think it would work for me. But then i know some people find it spurs their writing on.