This post is for the person who has written to me 16 times in the past three months. I understand narrowing down your whole life to a single point of light. I get it and I do it. It’s a sign that you’re an artist living inside the body of a pedestrian. It’s a sign that you are a poet pretending to be a civilian. It’s a sign that your life is gray and sullen, but inside you lives a clean, pure being made of radiant colors. In order to thrive, you have to expand that single obsessive pinpoint of light until it’s as wide as the sun.
The pinpoint demeans you. You put on a collar and a leash every morning. You tell yourself that this is all you deserve. I would publish your letters here but the last thing I want is to diminish you further. Because I am exactly the same as you. I want connection, but I also have a bad habit of fixating on the exact people who can barely see me at all, who don’t understand and don’t want to, who are built to reject me. A person can resist the temptation to do this to themselves for decades and then start it up again, like a former drinker falling off the wagon. This is why people in recovery keep calling themselves alcoholics forever. They understand their own essential nature. They understand what a danger they are to themselves and others, simply because their imaginations are wider than the sun, and can be narrowed down to a single, blazing laser that can cut through steel.
Here’s how obsession works: When something bright and shiny and new is introduced into your environment, it kicks up positive sensations. You feel more alive. You feel seen. You remember what you’re made of. You reconnect with your animal self. You realize that you don’t just have a few needs, you are a flaming ball of desires. There is a void that needs to be filled. Notice how it sounds like I’m talking about a drunk taking a drink again, or a sex addict flirting with a stranger. That first move toward the light is full of promise. How could this be dangerous?
And for a while, you can swim through that feeling and create a different kind of a life from it. It’s an escapist indulgence, sure, but your feet are still glued to the ground. “This is helping,” you tell yourself. “I like this. I forgot about this.” Maybe you get out of the house a little more. Maybe you imagine that you deserve a bigger life than the one you have. I’m not just talking about you, remember, I’m talking about everyone with a rich imagination and a naturally obsessive mind and nowhere to put all of that generative brain activity.
But once you keep going back to the same place, over and over, and that place isn’t really a person so much as the idea of a person, and your thinking about that person shifts slowly into magical thinking, in which their recognition and acceptance and admiration is the only thing worth fighting for, that’s when your “fun” turns into a weight on your back. Instead of bringing you more life, it makes you feel less and less alive. You realize that you’re living inside a fantasy. You’re ashamed. You feel delusional and gross.
And even if you use all of this industry and focus to make things – write music, craft poems, create art, build something – you might end up feeding the obsession along the way without knowing it. It’s easy to make a person into something bigger, and to imagine that you know that person very well already. Even when you don’t know quite enough, your imagination will fill in the gaps. But if your imagination does this long enough, it chips away at your own humanity. Everything starts to feel hollow and empty. It’s almost like you’re sculpting a replica of God using chunks of your own flesh. You’ve projected everything good that’s inside of you, all of your radiant colors, onto someone else. You’ve imbued a stranger with all of your interior riches. You have made yourself into a husk.
I have done this many times over the course of my life. I will probably do it again? I like to fixate on whatever I don’t have – places, people, things. Ultimately, I think I use it as a slow, arduous path that leads toward noticing what I do have. Eventually, I notice that my fixation is causing me pain, and taking me out of my body, and squatting on my life. That’s when my work is to sharpen my focus on my immediate environment instead. I dial into the people around me. I deepen my appreciation of what’s here. (The more energy I funneled into the obsession, the more difficult the transition from fantasy to reality can be.)
Fantasy and reality can seem like opposing forces. But creating an imaginary world for yourself engages all of the same skills you’ll need to heighten your appreciation of reality. The key is to take that pinpoint of focus and widen it. Stop training your telescope on a distant planet that you can barely see, and focus on the grim, empty world you inhabit until it becomes illuminated and full. This smear on the window is one of the rings of Saturn. Stay present and feel the dust in the air. There is a shift in the atmosphere. You are the author. You are the distant star. You are the object of your own obsession.
The circumstances of your life right now are as beautiful as you imagine mine to be, and mine are as beautiful as the circumstances I imagine belonging to my obsession. Celebrating your hunger doesn’t mean dancing about the next day’s hunt in the moonlight. It means living with your hunger in this moment, until you reach the point where you can feel it in your bones: Nothing is missing from this picture. The hunger itself is worth celebrating.
I stopped reading most of your letters a long time ago, just as you would stop reading someone else’s letters if they just kept coming and they started to seem a little unsteady. You believe in your heart that you’d read such letters, but no, you wouldn’t, because you’re healthier than that, even at this low moment in your life. No one wants other people imagining them unless the obsession is mutual. I don’t want to feel like what I create is making strangers feel lonely and crazy. I did read your last letter, in which you refer to yourself as “emotionally homeless” and ask me to spare a small bit of my frontal lobe for you. My in box is crowded with the emotionally homeless already. There are tents erected there. Some have made it clear they will never leave. I have a lot of compassion for all of them, but I still ignore most of them. I do my best sometimes, and sometimes I don’t do shit. There are these phases where it feels like everyone needs a piece of me. This makes me blame myself for getting too intimate on the page, for showing too much of who I am.
But let’s not get all prudish and self-abnegating about this, just when we’re starting to have fun, goddamn it. I’ve gained too much from this new ASS OUT path and I don’t want to abandon it yet. All of my writing feels alive to me at the moment, and for a writer, there’s nothing better than that. Sure, it’s messy and reckless and not perfect. This state is not about perfection. I wrote a song the other day with the line “I’m expanding like the sun.” That’s how it fucking feels to be in touch with your appetites again. It can feel delusional. You might suspect you have some sort of personality or mood disorder.
It’s the world that’s broken. It doesn’t make room for art or artists. It wants our shame instead.
I want you to move from a life of shame to a life of art. I should not be writing these words to you at all, but I’m doing this because I want you to understand that I see the humanity in you. I know you’ll feel embarrassed and believe that I view you as a creeper. Dude, I am the creepiest creeper. I regularly feel connections with people whose reaction is, “Please go away.” I still reach out to new people often because I am a weird lonely child with an open heart, just like you are. We are just human beings. The thing about obsessions is they’re built out of the fabric of your own mind. But now I want you to see that you have trussed up a raw chicken in the finest most elaborate garments, worthy of a king. If you met me in person, what you would think is this: “Her lips are very chapped.”
The idea of a person, even when it’s turned over again and again in your mind, can never live up to the heaven that lives inside of you. But when you take that heavenly, high-powered lens of yours and you train it on your immediate habitat, you will suddenly see that what you have is sublime. You will walk out into the world and you will view all of the sullen, muddy features around you through the sharpening glare of your own imagination and intellect, and you will see other human beings with chapped lips. They are everywhere and they have heaven inside of them, too.
I want you to stop writing to me because it’s starting to bum me out. I would just block you but I don’t want to send you the message that you’re beneath contempt, because you are exactly like me and everyone else alive. We are all needy motherfuckers out here in the world. I won’t read your letters because I am a very busy human with multiple different demanding creative projects who doesn’t know you from a fire hydrant bolted into the sidewalk. That doesn’t mean that’s all you are. My eyes don’t consecrate you. Your own eyes do. Celebrate them instead. Celebrate the sad, dumb humans in your midst, until you can see their radiant colors.
I will not respond to anything you write again, and if you write or comment regularly I’ll unsubscribe you and block you, because you’ve demonstrated that this activity is no longer feeding you — it’s fucking with you instead. That said, I respect your intelligence and I also respect your drive to make something from your current state of misery, so I want to leave you with some concrete advice: You need to exercise every single day until you sweat. This alone will save you. If you’re already doing that, do more of it. Take notes on your current circumstances. This stage of your life won’t last forever. Grow something out of this horrific, thankless shit pile. Forge connections with other people’s work. Read more newsletters, starting with The Chatner Shatner and The Stage Mirror. We’re living in a golden age of startling, intimate, melancholy writing by stubbornly unique authors who have no allegiance to dusty outdated standards around what makes certain words on a page more worthwhile than others. Read Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood. Read What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker by Damon Young. Read We’re Doomed, Now What? by Roy Scranton. Read Heavy by Kiese Laymon. Take a walk and listen to Mozart’s 41 symphonies in order from 1 to 41. Listen to what an obsessive, lonely mind can create, how it evolves, what it eventually becomes. The last movement of #41, Jupiter, is where you are headed. Listen to that one over and over. Maybe you are already here.
Learn to play an instrument. Patient mastery is a balm. Start a book club and invite some fire hydrants around you to frustrate you with their bad book suggestions. Look for the divine in their weak taste. Notice their quirks. Elevate their stubborn verbal tics. Volunteer somewhere. You’re a giver. Reach out. All of these misshapen lumps bolted into the sidewalk are smarter than they look. They need love, too.
Look for the blessings in everything. Listen to Chance The Rapper’s “Coloring Book.” It will get you in the mood. You don’t have to see this mood as Christian. Jesus need not be involved if you’re allergic to Jesus. Commit to finding meaning. Commit to belief and faith. Suspend your disbelief the same way you do when you’re feeling obsessed. Use your magical thinking as a pragmatic means to an end, to build a more robust existence for yourself, to cultivate more compassion for yourself and others, to create mad art from your unmet appetites.
Writing this to you was a blessing for me. I have also been a little obsessed lately, and in the past few days I’ve had to dig for the reasons for my obsession. I’ve had to talk about it, even though that part was fucking embarrassing. I think my obsession was really about seizing power the way some men do, effortlessly, from the day they’re born. But it kept looking like something more concrete, something I could reach out and grab. This turned it into a weight on my shoulders. I had to ask myself: What am I chasing and why do I love the chase so much? Can I feel this sharp and alive without this fixation fueling it? Can I make myself open to the world instead of one single person? Can I turn away from my imagination long enough to look straight into the eyes of the people I already love? Can I look straight into my own eyes and see heaven there?
We all crave affirmation. We all want to be seen and heard and loved deeply. Sometimes we only want to be seen by the people who refuse to see us. When that happens, we have to recognize it, and then ask “Who already sees me clearly?” It’s still hard to shift focus emotionally, even when we recognize what we’re doing intellectually. This work is as hard for me as it is for you. This work is hard for every single person alive. We all have to do our best, every day, to work very hard at something, to dig our nails into something that might keep us from slipping off the edge of the earth.
Circumstances change constantly. Even when your life is full, you never know when this world will kick you to the dirt and leave you all alone. It’s up to you to see that no one else can make you feel more alive. And even when you imagine that the right person’s approval could render you glorious and vibrant and divine, your imagination isn’t tripping when it comes to you. Your imagination sees you clearly. You are already glorious and vibrant and divine. You are an artist pretending to be a pedestrian. You are a poet disguised as a civilian. You are the sun. Feel yourself. That is your job. Do your job.