The genius of obsessiveness

Vagabond 1.jpeg

Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images.

“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care – with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world,” so wrote author and essayist David Foster Wallace. Such is the essence of the trial involved in creating groundbreaking work.

This is true not only of creative pursuits, but also a general truism. In science, Marie Curie spent hours toiling in her laboratory. Astronomer Maria Mitchell made herself “ill with fatigue” as she peered into the cosmos with her two-inch telescope well into the night, night after night. Thomas Edison tried material after material while looking for a stable filament for the first incandescent bulb, proclaiming: “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”

Yet for artists, writers, musicians and creatives of all ilks, perhaps the singular turmoil of creative geniuses is the compulsion to try, again and again, to craft the perfect sentence; draw the perfect outline; write the perfect musical rhythm. This can lead to days spent working and reworking on projects that take years to bear fruit. This may give the illusion of madness to the outside world – the well-worn adage that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results comes to mind here – but nonetheless, this relentless obsessiveness in the pursuit of creative perfection remains a central driving force in the interior life of creative genius.

This relationship between genius and madness is what theoretical cosmologist and astrophysicist Janna Levin examines in a portion of her (somewhat unusual) book, ‘How the Universe Got Its Spots: Diary of a Finite Time in a Finite Space’.

Levin, who characterises her fascination with the madness of mathematicians as “morbid but harmless” and wonders whether “brushes with insanity are occupational hazards,” writes:

“Insanity, madness, obsession, math, objectivity, truth, science and art. These friends always impress me. They’re sculptors and tailors, not scientists or spies. I’ve chosen them with the peculiar attentiveness of a shell collector stupidly combining the overwhelming multitude of broken detritus to hold up one shell so beautiful that it finds its way into my pocket, lining my clothes with sand. And then another. Not too many, so that the sheer number could never diminish the value of one.”

Reflecting on the similarities she sees across geniuses, Levin posits that a compulsion towards obsessiveness is a unifying characteristic, and that from this iterative obsessiveness, which at times verges on insanity, spring the advancements we experience as groundbreaking — repetition becomes the wellspring of revelation. Somehow, though they may appear blinded by their compulsions, minds of genius see more clearly into the nature of things, into some microscopic or monumental aspect of the world that evades the rest of us.

This same obsessiveness is highlighted by another great thinker of the 20th century, French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette:

“To write, to be able to write, what does it mean? It means spending long hours dreaming before a white page, scribbling unconsciously, letting your pen play around a blot of ink and nibble at a half-formed word, scratching it, making it bristle with darts, and adorning it with antennae and paws until it loses all resemblance to a legible word and turns into a fantastic insect or a fluttering creature half butterfly, half fairy.

To write is to sit and stare, hypnotised, at the reflection of the window in the silver inkstand, to feel the divine fever mounting to one’s cheeks and forehead while the hand that writes grows blissfully numb upon the paper. It also means idle hours curled up in the hollow of the divan, and then the orgy of inspiration from which one emerges stupefied and aching all over, but already recompensed and laden with treasures that one unloads slowly on to the virgin page in the little round pool of light under the lamp.

To write is to pour one’s innermost self passionately upon the tempting paper, at such frantic speed that sometimes one’s hand struggles and rebels, overdriven by the impatient god who guides it — and to find, next day, in place of the golden bough that boomed miraculously in that dazzling hour, a withered bramble and a stunted flower.”

Colette remained animated by this same creative restlessness, the same uncontainable compulsion to write, to continue to do the same thing over and over, that filled her youth. Shortly before her death – at the age of eighty-one – she writes:

“My goal has not been reached; but I am practicing. I don’t yet know when I shall succeed in learning not to write; the obsession, the obligation are half a century old. My right little finger is slightly bent; that is because the weight of my hand always rested on it as I wrote, like a kangaroo leaning back on its tail. There is a tired spirit deep inside of me that still continues its gourmet’s quest for a better word, and then for a better one still.”

For creatives who find themselves fighting their inner compulsions in order to cope with the rigours of the modern, neoliberal capitalist world, the takeaway here seems clear: do not ignore your obsession, your feeling of obligation to your work or ideas. Simply: give in.


Here are voices



I’ve never been much of one for books. You might think that odd, what with me being a professor of literature and all, but, then, professors of literature generally are quite odd. And everybody has to have their niche; their little cultivated patch of oddness. It’s part of the job.




We spent three days in San Antonio with an evangelical preacher and his eldest son, whom was a death metal enthusiast. Sarah kept on reaching out her hand and tugging – ever so gently, but also ever so firmly – at the cuff of my shirt. I’d look at her and she’d give me that look – the look every woman has, at one point, given a man. The universal look that asks, simply, why. After perhaps the fiftieth time she did this, the preacher clocked it. But he didn’t understand it. He seemed to become overwhelmed with emotion and started talking about the touch of Jesus and the tears of the virgin mother. Sarah turned her head away and ducked it into my shoulder, trying to hide her laughter. I kept on looking in the preacher’s direction, focusing a great deal of energy on keeping the corners of my mouth perfectly balanced and straight. Then I caught sight of the preacher’s son standing on top of their campervan, completely nude except for his socks. In one clenched fist he held a small music player, from which ran a thin black wire up to his large headphones. He was rocking back and forth so violently his long hair flailed in the air and you could hear the pop-pop-popping of the campervan’s metal roof bending beneath his heavy footsteps. A small crowd of other campers gathered round to stare, and several elderly women looked utterly aggrieved by the situation. I tried to keep my mouth straight but it was no use. I lost it – we both did – and, like that, we were finished.




They found six small skeletons in the cave. A family, most likely. There was one skull without any other bones to go with it. A Yorick skull, is how the archaeologist with the PR experience described it. This skull was much smaller than the others – it belonged to an infant, probably less than a year old at the time of death. Everyone seemed quite perturbed that there were no signs of its bones anywhere – especially since the other family members were all so complete. In hushed voices, magnified and distorted by the twisting geology of the cave system, other members of the dig spoke about feeling quite unnerved by it all. Where were the bones? And then something stranger still – the discovery of dozens of tiny, ochre-painted hand prints all along the cave walls. And in the quiet damp stillness of the caverns, the light sound of what seemed to be laughter.




Voices repeat. On and on, the same words and thoughts again and again. Ceaseless through history and utterly depressing in their unoriginality.




I discovered her ring quite by accident. The dog was scratching around in the dirt by the begonias, and suddenly the sun caught the platinum and there it was, revealed. I knew it was hers when I asked Robert about it. He shoved his hands into his pockets, then withdrew them and started turning them over frantically in the air. He mumbled about it being one of mine, but I told him, no – it wasn’t mine. But he was insistent, so I showed him. I took it and tried to place it on each of my fingers; and it was far too big, it just slid off whenever I held my fingers at a slight downward angle. He coughed and told me I must have lost some weight before grabbing the car keys and leaving for work. Once the sound of car wheels on the drive dissipated, I went upstairs, took out all his signed baseball cards from our bedroom closet and buried them beneath the begonias. They were worth a small fortune on the internet, I’ve since been told. But it doesn’t matter. He never found them, because he never went into the garden – except with her. And she has fat fingers.




You have kept me like a fish long enough.




There is a chronic problem with higher education: the students. Each year the same patterns, the same characters, bubbling along to the same rhythms and cycles, discovering and espousing the same ideas at the same time. Utterly predictable. Sometimes the hairstyles change for half a decade before they come back with a vengeance. But nothing else does. The most depressing fact of course is that this unoriginality is never acknowledged. I once had two students one year apart from the other. They took exactly the same modules, wore the same shirts, sat in the same seats. They both had those awful one-syllable names that scream out ‘married at thirty-one with a retriever and an office job’. And every new book we read was like déjà vu. The same ideas and opinions, articulated almost verbatim. ‘Don’t you think it’s there’s such a clear sexualised undertone to Kafka’s Metamorphosis’; ‘Can we just please accept the fact that Garcia Marquez is using symbolism to represent the phallus of mankind’; ‘I just think it’s so clever how Coetzee uses the euthanisation of dogs as a way of explaining why we need to start euthanizing human beings – it’s overpopulation, man.’


And then you have the worst ones of all: those catch on that everything that can be said or done has been said and done before, and who think at last that they have discovered something new. So they blow around calling out everyone, including themselves, for being totally unoriginal carbon copies of everything and everyone that has come before them. And then they cast their eyes to the side and catch their reflections in the glass of a window and tell themselves that, because they’ve broken this wall down, they are, in fact, originals. They think that realising how clone-like they are makes them unique. They watch Blade runner and think they see themselves in Harrison Ford. But they don’t realise: everyone sees themselves in Harrison Ford.


The Absent Therapist: ten of the best excerpts

absent therapist

After we saw Will Eaves’s exceptional reading of his Goldsmith Prize shortlisted, The Absent Therapist, we’ve been reading and re-reading this glorious little collection of mini-narratives. Not quite a novel or a collection of short stories, this collage of interwoven thoughts, voices, characters, scenes and experiences delivers a fiction experience that is quite unlike anything else you’ll read.

We’ve already explained why this should be one of the first books on your essential reading list this summer, but thought we’d also take this opportunity to show you why it should be, too. So, we’ve gone through the book, cover to cover, and have brought you – in no particular order – ten of the best of these mini-narratives (there are 200 in total – and, if we’re honest, they’re all pretty fantastic).



  1. Boxer shorts

“I don’t see the point of boxer shorts. No support. And the gap for your sticky wicket, why bother? Too fiddly. You end up groping about for the opening while your fellow man casts suspicious sideways glances. And as my beloved put it, why poke your head out of the window when you can jump over the wall?”

  1. The Spanking club

“I went to the Spanking Club once. It was mostly older men in glasses and short-sleeved shirts. A few were wandering around in school uniform, in shorts. The whole place smelt of bleach. On the bar, the organisers, someone, had laid out the implements – gloves, spatulas, ping-pong bats, flails. Knobbly dildos, a few bits and pieces I didn’t recognise. People seemed to be enjoying themselves, yes, in a serious-minded sort of way. It was eccentric, I’d say, more than erotic or perverse. Certainly not obscene. After about an hour of leisurely smacking, a skinny little man came in and rang a bell and they served a buffet. The codgers pulled up their trousers, wiped their glasses, and queued for sausages and potato salad, and then disappeared into dark corners with plastic forks and paper plates. No one, not one, washed their hands first. It was revolting.”

  1. A fairly casual racist

“Brenda, at the next desk, is a fairly casual racist. I mean, she’s not knowingly a racist, but then that’s almost the definition of casual racism, isn’t it? She fancies herself as a bit of a singer, too, and I heard her say to Lola, who really is a singer (in a good band, too), ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but only black people can sing the blues.’ Lola didn’t react for a bit. Tap, tap, tap, on she goes. And finally replies, looking down at the keyboard like she’s lost something. ‘Well, I’m black – and I can’t sing the blues.’ ‘No, love,’ Brenda says, patting Lola’s arm, ‘I’m not saying you can’t sing the blues – I’m saying you can.

  1. ET

“I saw ET again, the other night. Every time I’m in pieces when we get to the last half hour, every time. It’s like a religious experience, the confusion in the home, the resurrection, the bikes lifting off and flying across the moon, I can’t bear it. And I’m suddenly angry, terribly cross and I go stamping round the room and clapping my hand over my mouth because I realise the neighbours can probably hear. It’s because I remember an awful night out with my father, when ET came out in the 1980s and I was fourteen. It wasn’t cool to like ET, really, but everyone did. You had – you have – no choice: it’s a brilliant attack on adolescent cynicism, apart from anything else, because the elder brother in the film, Elliott’s protector, falls in love with ET, too. Brilliant stroke, that. And Dad just dismissed the whole film out of hand, but with this hatred I’d not seen before. He kept saying, ‘Some fucking puppet, some rubbery thing’, and pointing out how mawkish the whole enterprise was. And I said, ‘Well, have you seen it?’, and he absolutely went for me. ‘No, I fucking haven’t,’ he said. ‘And I don’t fucking want to.’

  1. The vacuum

“If the vacuum were not so complete, the sound of every culture speeding by, from bacteria to late macro-sentient galactic entities, would be that of a cistern filling in the ears of the creator, the soft flare of emptiness nixed and life’s brief quelling of the silent storm, which rages on and on.”

  1. Incontinent skunk sandwiches

“It’s as if a skunk went in there, shat itself, died, and the whole lot got turned into a sandwich. And there are queues, that’s what I don’t understand. Many, many people, at all hours of the day, who want incontinent skunk sandwiches.”

  1. Identity

“When I was a child I didn’t have an identity and I didn’t want one. I was neither boy nor girl, male nor female. I was just a pair of eyes, a nose, some ears. Receiving the world, the brilliant blue sky, people talking above me.”

  1. Time

“Time kills everyone, of course, though none so literally as my ancestors, the Gais of Bristol, who died of mercury poisoning. John Gai licked into a point the little brushes with which he used to paint mercury onto his watch faces. He would have kissed Sophia, his wife, many times. They had five children.”

  1. An ex-Jew Catholic convert

“I’m an ex-Jew Catholic convert and my wife Kris is from Uruguay. She’s not too happy about my shift in orthodoxies and I’m none too clear about it myself. I can see some kind of logical fallacy, certainly. If the commandment says, ‘Honour thy father and thy mother’, then I guess that means I should have stayed Jewish. At least I waited until my father was dead before converting. I’m a geologist for the government and I’m researching a nuclear facility near Los Alamos. It’s amazing how you can do this technical thing and still have these ideological disputes with colleagues who are highly respected geologists in their own right but creationists at the same time. I am in an awful way with one guy, whom I like very much as a person. But he is obsessed with explaining away everything as a Biblical relic. So, all the limestones from here to the canyon are carbonates that were reworked by the Flood, okay. He has nothing to say about the classic reefs that show up here. He is in total denial that New Mexico had any kind of coastal environment. It’s crazy. And the dinosaur tracks in the Mesozoic rocks? How can they be late in the Flood like he says? I thought everything outside the Ark was supposed to be dead. Being a Jew Catholic sometimes feels like the least of my problems.”

  1. The rich

“The rich are always frantically busy and in a hurry to do everything because they have all the time in the world and don’t have to do anything.”


Now that we’ve got your literary taste-buds going – why don’t you check out the book itself? You can pick up a copy from the lovely independent publisher CB Editions here.

Book review – F(r)iction, issue 4


F(r)iction (4)  is the latest anthology from literary publisher Tethered by Letters. This is an important point to make because neither F(r)iction, nor Tethered by Letters, are quite like any anthology or literary publisher you’re likely to come across. The publisher doesn’t just print books – it is also an excellent resource for writers of all stripes, offering invaluable insight into the trade of authorship, as well as into the fascinating world of literature and the publishing scene in general. It’s no surprise that an organisation clearly unafraid to push the boundaries of literature and explore new possibilities of the written word have produced such an interesting book.

Simply put, F(r)iction is a stunning, visually and intellectually inspiring book to pick up. The illustrations that run throughout its pages are truly brilliant works of art – and all of these complement the pieces of writing they sit among, while also telling their own tales, in a wide variety of artistic styles.

As with all anthologies, there will be pieces of writing that one is drawn to more than others. It is therefore fortunate that the standard of writing throughout the anthology is so high; and that any preference between pieces comes down to a matter of taste, rather than negative criticism of one story or other.

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum’s On the 100th Anniversary of Mary’s death is certainly one story that deserves special mention. While the fact that the story is cut out into shards and pieces runs the risk that some may see it as a simple formatting gimmick, the writing itself is so tight and crisp that evidence of a very real writerly talent is clearly on show. Intriguing and captivating throughout, with subtle shifts in emphasis and tone keep the reader entrapped in an quasi-mystical relationship with the words on the page. Certain extracts, also, leap out at you:

“Instead, we ate cheese on crackers and drank Australian Shiraz from clear plastic cups in the foyer. Instead, we made visors of our hands to shield the glare of fluorescents reflected in Mary’s blown-up stills: snapshots of stairs cut into the stone of a mountain, Nepalese children beaming and bedraggled before a straw hut, a shaman naked in dreads on a wheel of stone. No, She did not strain her eyes at us from her portraits. No, the hallway fluorescents did not shiver and blink. Her sisters stood awkwardly by the exit door. Strangers shuffled past with their refreshments. No one paused to question the light.”

And the cumulative effect of the scattered narrative is of having spent the day watching a combination of Adam Curtis documentaries and Alfred Hitchcock movies (which can only ever be seen as a good thing).

Follow the leader, a comic-book styled narrative from Jonas McCluggage, is another arresting piece from this overwhelmingly enjoyable collection. Aside from the graphic illustration, which is superb, the story the words and images combine to tell is both disturbing and compelling, as we are drawn into a hunt not only trying to discover the reality behind the mysterious opening section, and the so-called ‘cult’ that has taken over the otherwise peaceful American town of Larranceville, but also into an exploration of mortality – and of the human condition. Quite a feat for a short comic.

But it is not for us to review and comment on every piece in this anthology. The marriage between narrative forms – including fiction, comic book and poetry – as well as between new writers and voices, throws (as all marriages tend to do) curve balls at the reader as we move from one piece to the next. But it never feels jarring, and it never feels forced. Indeed, as is perhaps the ideal for all marriages; F(r)iction has a remarkable habit for only ever throwing up pleasant surprises. And, underneath it all, it burns with a true passion for literature, for the written word, and, most importantly of all: for new ideas – which are so often lacking in contemporary publishing. A must read.

To purchase a copy of F(r)iction, please click here.


Roddy Doyle’s 10 writing tips


In 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, The Guardian asked authors for their personal lists of dos and don’ts. We’ve gone through the whole list and, week by week, will be bringing you the timeless counsel of the great writers of the 20th and 21stcenturies.

Last time out we brought you the rules of writing from literary legend Esther Freud. And in the past we’ve also featured Zadie Smith’s exquisite balance of the practical, the philosophical, and the poetic. Then there’s Neil Gaiman’s timeless counsel on writing, which complements the writing commandments of Jonathan Franzen, as well as the wise decree of Margaret Atwood. Today, we’re pleased to feature the writing advice from renown Irish novelist, dramatist and screenwriter, Roddy Doyle. Enjoy!

  1. Do not place a photograph of your ­favourite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide.
  2. Do be kind to yourself. Fill pages as quickly as possible; double space, or write on every second line. Regard every new page as a small triumph ­–
  3. Until you get to Page 50. Then calm down, and start worrying about the quality. Do feel anxiety – it’s the job.
  4. Do give the work a name as quickly as possible. Own it, and see it. Dickens knew Bleak House was going to be called Bleak House before he started writing it. The rest must have been easy.
  5. Do restrict your browsing to a few websites a day. Don’t go near the online bookies – unless it’s research.
  6. Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine, eg “horse”, “ran”, “said”.
  7. Do, occasionally, give in to temptation. Wash the kitchen floor, hang out the washing. It’s research.
  8. Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called the Partitions. Then I decided to call them the Commitments.
  9. Do not search for the book you haven’t written yet.
  10. Do spend a few minutes a day working on the cover biog – “He divides his time between Kabul and Tierra del Fuego.” But then get back to work.


For more excellent wisdom on writing, consider the excellent musings of ground-breaking Scottish author, Iain Maloney; and complement that with some priceless advice from Kurt Vonnegut, alongside our compendium of writing advice from some of the greatest authors.

An evening with Will Eaves and the Absent Therapist


Few things are more enjoyable than those evenings filled with literature, good conversation and excellent company in a relaxing venue. So of course the Nothing in the Rulebook team leapt at the chance to attend Will Eaves’s reading of his Goldsmith Prize shortlisted novel, The Absent Therapist, at Vout-O-Renee’s.

Stepping down the stone steps from the street and into the foyer of Vout-O-Renee’s immediately transports you to another time and place. The private member’s club is almost effortlessly cool in a world of hipster joints trying their hardest to stand out. It is a place for jazz and charm, for mystery, sharp minds and conversation. And absolutely worth the price of a ticket to one of the many book readings and spoken-word events they run on a regular basis.

The perfect location, in other words, to hear Will Eaves reading from The Absent Therapist – a thoroughly curious and brilliant book that, as we’ve previously mentioned, should be on every essential summer reading list.

The Absent Therapist is, in some ways, rather hard to define: not necessarily a novel; not quite a collection of short stories, but rather a collage and compilation of over 200 mini-narratives. Described by the author Luke Kennard as “achingly good”, Eaves’s book never ceases to surprise you. What other piece of writing, after all, can so easily slip from eloquently philosophising about the nature of mortality and artificial intelligence into the following internalised commentary on the constructs of social gatherings:

“You know you’re among the remnants of the aristocracy when you accept an invitation to Sunday lunch in Deal and find yourself talking to a florid character who eats with his mouth open and who, when you turn your ankle on his steps, produces from his ‘cold store’ a compress made of frozen squirrel.”

The intelligence with which Eaves curates the words on the page and the structure of this collection of mini narratives is absolutely unique. And it is incredibly satisfying to hear these little fiction vignettes read aloud by such a performative author. Indeed, Eaves’s ease in front of the microphone and a crowded room is quite rare – and it is not hard to imagine him gathering crowds on the stand-up comedy circuit, should he ever wish to try his hand at it.

In case you missed it, here is a short extract of Eaves’s reading for you to enjoy:

If you ever have the opportunity to attend one of Eaves’s readings, we cannot recommend attending highly enough. Until that point, you will have to make do with purchasing the book itself (you can do that here).

Scratch and read: new literary poster design

scratch book poster

The team here at Nothing in the Rulebook are always on the hunt for literary gadgets, gizmos and gems, so we were pretty delighted to stumble upon this cool scratch-off poster that lets readers keep track of what books they’ve read.

Each image on the poster has a gold image overlayed on the cover. When the reader completes one of the 100 books listed, they can take out a coin and scratch off the gold, revealing the full book cover.

The poster features some of the most iconic literary classics published since 1605, from Under the Volcano, Farenheit 451, To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984.

You can see the full collection right here. Which ones have you read?