Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-thriller novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon

Obsession

personal 4 min read

I run hot and cold – or at least, that’s what my grandmother always used to tell me.

What she meant was that at any given moment, I either absolutely love something, or absolutely hate it, with little room for anything in between. As always, she was right.

My greatest adversary throughout my creative life has been myself, and particularly my shifting passions. It was true at school, it was true when I was developing software, and it’s still true now that I’m writing full-time.

I suppose you could say that I crave novelty. You could probably say the same about yourself; it’s a natural part of the human condition. And it can be a wonderful, powerful thing.

I can be consumed by an idea – whether it was for an app, or now an article, or a story – and then nothing else matters. I’ll disappear into hours of planning (previously, drawings of interfaces, and jotting down lists of features and implementation notes; now, outlining and playing with narrative arcs, character sketches and plot points), and sometimes be unable to sleep until I’ve begun the act of creating whatever it is. When I do sleep, I wake up desperate to get straight back to work.

That’s a blessing, without question. That kind of drive is a gift, which we’re granted all too infrequently. It can lead to a frightening level of output, where we enter what’s almost an altered state of consciousness, and hours tick by like minutes. The zeal of a compelled mind is the natural state of the prolific creator.

But to be prolific, you have to finish.

Therein lies the rub, because I run hot and cold. Novelty quickly becomes familiarity, which becomes a lack of motivation, which becomes boredom, which leads to stagnation – but true stalling never happens, because, oh, there’s another idea.

You can see the cycle. The focus of novelty is addictive, in a way. I recognise its shape from the other addictions of my life – alcohol, for a thankfully brief period as a young man; the first fires of romance, until I grew up; coffee, for many glorious years before the doctor confined me to decaf; acquisition of pens and paper notebooks, even now – and the feeling is the same. Bring me what’s new, so I can be energised again!

It’s dangerous. So very dangerous.

Novelty is the enemy of finishing, or of seeing things through. Our culture provides us with endless distraction, and no penalty for gorging ourselves on it. Attention spans dwindle, and with them go our ability to self-motivate over the long term. Developing a work to completion requires a Herculean effort of will, because the muscle has atrophied.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a huge fan of Apple products in all their forms. The understated aesthetic elegance, and ruthless focus on human optimisations, really resonate with me. The design language is that of my inner utopian minimalist. I have a lot of email receipts from their online store.

To this day, whenever a new Apple product arrives here (after hours of my vaguely nervous pacing, keeping the music down low so as to hear the doorbell), I still think to myself: new toy.

I tear open the shipping box, and I’m a boy again, sitting in my mother’s car on Saturday morning, eager to spend my pocket money. Acquisition and novelty were an elemental part of the lure of the weekend, from my earliest years. That fact takes on a shameful note of shallowness and privilege now, to my adult ear, but it’s nonetheless true.

I’ve been chasing the feeling ever since.

I suppose that, in the brightest shine of those halcyon Saturdays, I’d have been only six or eight years old – and those days are now three decades gone. Yet here I am. No longer impatiently sitting in the back seat of the car until my mother has had the required cigarette, before we brave the main street and its carnival of acquirable wonders. Instead, I’m reassured by the order-confirmation email, and I refresh the shipment tracking web page in every spare moment. Standing at the other end of a gulf of thirty years, it’s essentially the same thing.

So, it’s a matter of war. A small, personal war with myself, and that avaricious, waist-high vulture whose mother’s purse holds a banknote with his name on it.

I no longer have my programming projects hard drive connected, but it’s a graveyard of beautiful, unfinished things. A carpenter’s workroom, suddenly abandoned as the militia sweep the city, and found decades later – shrouded in dust, but untouched; a pocket of the past, preserved in the amber of melancholy.

My writing projects are a little different; there aren’t so many unfinished ones around. Just a handful. In a couple of cases, I even believe I’ll go back to them – but we all know what the end game looks like. A further thirty years hence, if I’m even still alive, I wonder how many will have seen the light of day.

Obsession drives me forward, and I can only be grateful for it. It’s the ignited fuel that propels the germ of an idea into something that – slowly at first, but then all at once – begins to live and breathe. And we should be obsessed. We should. Why do it, otherwise? Spend some time finding the things that do obsess you instead.

But it’s fickle. Which fits, because so are we.

It’s a hydra, always with a new head lifting to prominence; its beak clasping a bauble I’ve never seen before, and isn’t that just so interesting?

Ultimately, it’s a frightening force. Life blood, but destined to change with the wind, choking the almost-thing it nurtured and fed so ardently before. We need it – truly – but it must be mastered, and forced down, if we’re ever to have a chance to do it justice.

It never tires, at least not if you’re doing the right thing with your time, and perhaps that’s comforting in a way. Or is it soul-shattering? I can never decide. But I don’t dwell on it, because, oh, here’s a new thing again.

The only thing I can do, and I think this is true for all of us, is ride the dragon as best I can. Accept the terrible radiance of its gaze, catch it in a bottle, and get just as far as possible with it before the light fades.

At that point, we have a choice: move with the shifting dawn, or remain behind. Scrape together whatever kindling we can find, light our meagre fire, and sit on the edge of the dark, to do the real work.

We have only a brief time here. I lost thirty years in the last few minutes, it seems, and I’m not sure how. I’m trying to hold onto this moment, today, but moments are so very slippery.

We can make, and do, only so much. There will always be new things, and new ideas – a lifetime’s worth, if you want them. Sugary treats, for breakfast and for dinner. And there will be abandoned workshops.

Faded photographs, and dust-thick benches. Newspapers, yellow and curled. Tools whose outlines have become soft, and indistinct.

A tarpaulin, perhaps, covering… something. It was almost done. Almost. What might it have been, had its creator chosen to remain behind, after the light went out?

I suppose we’ll never know.