“The refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.” John Updike, about J. D. Salinger.
But it isn’t a disorder.
In an overview on Psych Central of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Michael Demitri, M.D. notes it is considered an anxiety disorder when it’s “characterized by recurrent and disturbing thoughts and/or repetitive, ritualized behaviors that the person feels driven to perform. Obsessions can also take the form of intrusive images or unwanted impulses.”
In contrast, creative obsessions are not unwanted. We choose to be engaged with compelling and motivating creative ideas.
The image is a replica Dodo skeleton crafted by Adam Savage (co-host of the TV series “Mythbusters”).
See my related video Creative obsessions: Adam Savage and Stanley Kubrick, in which he talks about his passion for making this sculpture, and relates how he collected many thousands of images and documents about the defunct bird.
Another example of creative obsession – on a much bigger scale, of course – is filmmaking.
Another example, in addition to Kubrick, is James Cameron (the Terminator series, Aliens, Titanic and many others), whose attention to detail for his latest movie Avatar included employing a university linguistics professor to create a functioning language for the tribe of blue aliens on Pandora.
But one of the dark sides of obsession for Cameron and others can be engaging in negatively perfectionistic behavior, or being a destructive workaholic – a reason one of his wives, Linda Hamilton, says she left him.
Of course, as with most behavior, there is no absolute border between productive and pathological.
Therapist and creativity coach Eric Maisel, PhD notes in his article In Praise of Positive Obsessions that clinicians may define “obsession” as an intrusive thought, recurrent, unwanted, and inappropriate.
Maisel writes, “Defined this way, it is obviously always unwelcome. But suppose a person is caught up thinking day and night about her current painting or about the direction she wants to take her art?
“Thoughts about painting ‘intrude’ as she balances her checkbook or prepares her shopping list. She can hardly wait to get to her studio and her rhythms are more like Picasso’s on painting jags than like the rhythms of a ‘normal’ person.
“This artist is obsessed in an everyday sense of the word – and more than happy to be so!”
Eric Maisel and Ann Maisel are authors of Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions.
In their article Go Ahead, Obsess!, they advocate for “productive obsessing, or putting yourself wholeheartedly into a useful and meaningful passion. These healthy preoccupations are an antidote to boredom and passivity. They aren’t just for people driven to accomplish something out of the ordinary. They are for everyone.”
One of the examples of productive obsession in the article is science journalist Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about the line of tissue cells used extensively by researchers, taken in the 1950s from Henrietta Lacks, a young African-American woman.
The article says Skloot as a teenager was “an autodidact who read voraciously on the history of science” and later as a grad student chased the story of Lacks for a decade.
“It took her a year to gain the confidence of Lacks’s youngest daughter. She went through three publishing houses and four editors. She went 10 years without visiting her hometown. And she put on hold her desire to have children.”
But this perseverance and obsession resulted in a New York Times best-seller.
“Skloot strongly believes that it was the long-term ruminating and exploring that enabled her to create such a nuanced, complex work. Because Skloot took the time to pull out and examine so many strands, Henrietta Lacks will now be part of literary and science history.”