a woman in front of a series of mirrors

It’s looking closely, becoming entranced, and developing obsessions that leads us down the road to discovery.

Listen to me read this piece here:


 

When you look closely at anything familiar, it kind of transmogrifies into something unfamiliar — the sort of cognitive version of saying your name again and again and again, or a word again and again and again, and getting a different sound of it after you’ve repeated it forty times.

— Alexandra Horowitz, via Brain Pickings

There was a time in which I was absorbed in the visual art world, rather than any kind of literary circle, and I thought about things differently then. As with writing, drawing and painting involve observation — but I observed things differently when I was constantly drawing, my hands and clothes smudged dark. And yet there are two components of both that stand out to me when thinking about creation of any sort: obsession, and looking closely.

As a college first-year, I enrolled in an infamously challenging drawing course. Most of the time, I found it infuriating — but I also became good at looking, and in looking, I became obsessed with what we leave on our plates after a meal. Leftovers. I was fascinated by leftovers. I sketched them in the dining hall; I brought plates back to my room. Though it isn’t necessarily germane to this story, I’ll say this: what we leave on our plates, once drawn in black-and-white, high detail, doesn’t look much like food anymore. I was captivated by the abstraction of it.

But it’s these obsessions that lead us places. It’s looking closely, becoming entranced, and developing obsessions that leads us down the road to discovery.

rose in small bottle

In Chapter 42 of Moby Dick, Melville speaks about the color white for pages and pages. The entire chapter, The Whiteness of the Whale, is about whiteness.

Witness:

…yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in blood. This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness, when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are?

Only a man obsessed with whiteness can scramble down the rabbit hole of learning about its cultural implications, of looking at nature and religion to see what whiteness means, and will write about whiteness for a good long while in his book about Ahab and a whale. Some find the chapter ridiculous and a waste of time; others, like myself, think it’s one of the greatest things about the entire book — part of Melville’s legacy, in my mind, is that meditation on the sacredness and terror-inducing qualities of whiteness.

What do you look closely at?

What ideas, images, or concepts obsess you?

Watch where they take you. Follow the line.

P.S. For additional resources about creativity and obsession, take a gander at Where’s the Electricity?.