going down the rabbit hole, or how to make an obsession packet

"Her eyes met those of a large blue caterpillar." (wikimedia)

“Her eyes met those of a large blue caterpillar.” (wikimedia)

Hello, Reader. It’s “ski week” in the Peninsula Town. This, I gather, is a week off school during which some people “go to the snow” to ski. Here at the Wee, Small House we are using it instead to nurse fevers and coughs, to work on school projects (them, not me), and (me, not them) to wander around the house, befuddled, wondering how I will find time for poetry this week.

Right now it’s raining and two-thirds of the kids are playing a lively game of Axis and Allies, while one-third is throwing a tennis ball against the side of the house. This, it appears, is how I’ll find time for poetry this week: sneaking off into my poetry corner when they are otherwise occupied.

Last week I said I’d write more about how to make an obsession packet (I first wrote about obsession packets here). Then the week got away from me and I didn’t. But I’m going to right now.


Step 1: Become obsessed with something.  For me this usually happens at the library when I’m in the stacks looking for one book and I come across another book that rings a shrill bell inside me and says: You.must.read.me. Other ways of becoming obsessed with something include but are not limited to: hearing an interesting headline or sound byte on NPR, reading the newspaper, misspelling something during a google search, and hearing a song or a bit of music that grabs you.

Step 2: Do not ask why.  Trust the shrill, ringing bell.

Step 3: Go down that rabbit hole. Gather materials — whatever materials grab you.  This might mean doing the obvious: checking out books, running google searches, seeking out articles and lists of terms related to your obsession. But it also means allowing yourself to be grabbed: that is, if you see or hear anything, anywhere that somehow feels connected to your obsession for you (the connection need not be logical), grab it (cut it out, write it down, listen to it, whatever). I’ve found it very fruitful to seek out art (especially paintings) related to a particular obsession and to jot down notes, impressions, and gift-phrases that come to me out of the art. One path may lead to another. Keep going. Trust the shrill, ringing bell. It knows where you need to go.

Step 4. Read. If any of your materials are written, read them and keep a pencil and post-it notes nearby. I tend to list page numbers on the post-it notes, then mark (lightly) the passages in the book/article that grab me. Again, don’t stop to ask why a certain phrase or subtopic or illustration is grabbing you; just go with it.

Step 5. Make copies, take notes. Armed with your post-it notes and your obsession texts, go through and make copies or take notes on the passages that grabbed you. Then, yes, erase the light marks you made in the book that is not your own.

Step 6. Meanwhile, free-associate.  While I’m amidst an obsession, I also like to do some free-writing on phrases, questions, images, or terms I’ve come across. This is just playing in your notebook, being open to whatever language pours forth.

Step 7. Deflect questions from your spouse and/or significant other and/or cat.To wit:
Him: “Why are you reading so many books about polar exploration?”
Me: “Dude, trust the shrill, ringing bell.”
Him: “Huh-??”

(Unless you have a cat, which I think then will just give you a disgusted look and not wait around for your answer).

Step 8. Get the reminder notice from the library that your obsession-related materials are due tomorrow. (Insert a deer-in-the-headlights look here).

Step 9. Complete your final round of frenzied note-taking. Or, if you’d rather, renew.

Step 10. Create a file. I keep my obsession packets in regular old file folders with the name of the obsession on the file tab: “The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex,” “Antarctic Expeditions,” “Obscure Woman Saints,” “Anatomy of Birds.” Everything, every copy, every scrap, every question, every list of sources (and don’t forget to list your sources!), goes in.

Step 10. Go back. This step is important. When it’s time to draft, or when something is niggling at you, or when you feel inspired, go back to your obsession packet and see what’s interesting today (important: See Step 2). Recently, I went back to my obsession packet on the wreck of the whaleship Essex and ended up with two new drafts that came out of two separate passages that had grabbed me during my reading. They are drafts I would not have written if I hadn’t made the obsession packet.

In general, I see the making of an obsession packet as a way to cultivate the subconscious energies that undergird any creative act. I also see it as a way to honor artistic intuition — that shrill, ringing bell knows something. The key is to be willing to go down that rabbit hole, even knowing you may come face to face with a large blue caterpillar and not know why. If nothing else, you get to learn a lot of useless but interesting facts that will help you the next time you’re socializing and someone asks what you do:

Them: “So, what kind of work do you do?”
You: “I’m a poet.”
Them: Uncomfortable silence. The shifting of weight from foot to foot. “Uhhh–”
You: “Hey, did you ever hear about the wreck of the whaleship Essex?”
Them (relieved): “No, what’s the scoop with that?”

And the conversation can continue (ok, I’m kidding, mostly).

And now, Reader, the lively game of Axis and Allies is over; the tennis baller is wet and muddy and inside the house. And our beloved Michigan State Spartans play in just three hours (huge game vs. Indiana — Go Spartans!). I must turn my attention to mud abatement and pre-game food prep.

I wish you fruitful days, wherever your obsessions may take you. May you follow that shrill, ringing bell. And may you come face to face with many a big blue caterpillar.

4 thoughts on “going down the rabbit hole, or how to make an obsession packet

  1. I have little notes, shards of magazines, ragged and written-on bookmarks, movie stubs in odd places, words circled and more scattered around my books and notebooks. I should now endeavor to organize them in such a way. Your method is brilliant, so naturally I will steal it. 🙂

    I had a trick in university to separate my personal ideas and understandings of a lecture (or simply random thoughts that popped into my head). I would preface that sentence or chunk of notes with “CN:” which stood for “Carly Note.” My prof might be going on about breadth of knowledge vs depth of understanding and my notes would say “CN: grass vs tree; large surface vs deep roots.” Very useful study tool when needing to parrot a professor verbatim on a topic without inserting one’s own slant, for making sure one is not parroting verbatim, and for keeping track of completely unrelated mindsparks and imagery. Now, thanks to you, I’ll have a place to put them all.

    • Love the Carly Note idea! Sometimes I do that, too, with a little notation “(me)” prior to an idea or point. And don’t think I’m too terribly organized — I have plenty of floating scraps in and around my notebooks/desk/stack o’ books that need organizing, too. But for real, live obsessions the packet process has worked well for me. Write on!

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