Well, you’re in your little room
and you’re working on something good,
but if it’s really good,
you’re gonna need a bigger room.
And when you’re in the bigger room,
you might not know what to do —
you might have to think of
how you got started
sitting in your little room.
— The White Stripes, “Little Room”
I tend to obsess a bit once I get an idea in my head. It’s frustrating at times to both Jodi and me, because I find it difficult to concentrate on other things, and the more I dwell on the object of my obsession, the less inclined I am to wait for a pay-off.
I’ve been this way forever, I think, but first recognized it clearly around 2002, when the band The White Stripes released their recording White Blod Cells. I caught them accidentally on Saturday Night Live, liked what I saw, and went to a local CD store to pick up the disk. I had heard they had release a limited edition disk with a bonus CD-DVD that included a couple extra tracks and music videos, so I figured I’d pick that version up. I guessed it would be about $15, maybe $20 with the DVD.
I got to the store over lunch, I think, after stewing all day on the prospect of new music. I didn’t have a lot of time, and the store didn’t have the limited edition with the bonus disk. Furthermore, they were asking $20 plus tax for just the regular CD. I knew I could get it cheaper at another place, but didn’t have time to run there. I wanted that disk. I needed that disk.
I bought that disk.
I loved the music, but now began to obsess over the missing bonus CD-DVD. A day or so later I passed a display in a different store: The White Stripes Limited Edition White Blood Cells CD plus bonus CD-DVD, only $17 (or something like that). My heart sank. I couldn’t justify spending money on the package just to get the bonus disk. I should’ve waited.
Some weeks (months?) later, I found the bonus disk for sale, by itself, on eBay. I bought it; with shipping it probably cost $10. $30-plus for something I could’ve had for $17 plus tax. And the bonus disk wasn’t that great.
There is a point: Now, as I’m working from home on longer writing projects and trying to finish a novel, I’m again obsessing over ideas and wanting to rush headlong toward the finish. On the University side, I’m wading through reams of detailed background material right now, and I’m not writing, even though I very much want to. I keep thinking, “I know this material!” and wanting to shove it aside and type away, but I’m forcing myself not to. The reason? I tend to write my first drafts in close to final form, so that I have a cohesive, easy-to-read whole at the end. That’s wonderful, but it makes it more difficult to revise and add material later, because it leaves few openings (and often I’m wedded to the words already on the page).
Similarly, the novel I’ve been working on for 15 years now has stagnated because when I started it, I rushed headlong forward, improvising on a very general idea of where I wanted the story to go. Now what I have are several tightly drafted sections that hint at a great story, but they need fleshing out and more direction. So at this late date, I’m finally taking a big step back and patiently sketching (with words) whose story this is, who the characters are, what they care about, what they want to achieve. I want to ditch this step and just write, because for the first time in a long time, I’m getting excited again…but I know I need to plot it out a bit more carefully if I want to make sustained progress toward a completed book. And you know what? I’m getting to know things about my characters that I hadn’t guessed before!
Fruits that are allowed to ripen are sweetest and juiciest just before they spoil. Patience and careful attention to what I’ve set out to do, I think, will be more important than ever in my Second Third if I hope to enjoy the full flavor of the things I love.