Good and bad obsessions

A weird thing seems to hit me around this time every year — I develop a powerful, almost compulsive, urge to eat the same food over and over again. Last year it was good hot chocolate — not that Swiss Miss crap (is that even food?), but not too fancy either. I preferred Ghiradelli, double chocolate flavor, made with lactose-free skim milk. (OK, I didn’t care what milk it was made with. But I’m lactose intolerant and I drink skim milk, so…) Marshmallows not optional. The year before that it was sushi from this one particular place in Brooklyn. Thai shrimp tempura, made with scallions and peanuts and red curry. That cost a lot so I didn’t eat it too much, but man, I wanted it all the time. In fact, at various times I’ve had near-obsessive hungers for frosted mini-wheats, seedless grapes (only the long cylindrical ones, fat globular ones are too tart), graham crackers, turkey jerky (yeah, I know), sage breakfast sausage (one particular brand, from Whole Foods), basmati rice, spiced blue crabs, and wine-poached pears. No, really.

Until suddenly, at some unspecified time, the urge vanishes. It doesn’t fade. Just disappears all at once after plaguing me for months. I still enjoy the foods thereafter, but I never really really want them again.

Naturally this urge scuttles any attempt I might be making to lose weight, unless I fight it. And don’t think I haven’t noticed that most of my cravings are for sugary/starchy things. Diabetes runs in my family, so I know better than to indulge those particular urges too often. The only solution I’ve found is to make sure no version of the target food is in the house, ever, because if it is, I’m going to eat it. Or I put deliberate roadblocks between me and the target — like throwing away delivery menus, because I know I’m too damn lazy to go look up the number in the phone book. (Would have to find the phone book first. I barely use it anymore.)

This year’s urge hasn’t hit me yet, but I’m bracing myself to fight it already, because I’m determined to lose 20 pounds before the end of the year. I’ve seen some photos of myself at various cons this year, and I’m planning to go to even more cons next year, and dagnabbit I want those photos to look good. So wish me luck.

I say all this to provide context, because there’s another weird thing that hits me whenever I’m writing a novel. I’m not a very visual person in general, but with every book I seem to get one strong visual stuck in my head. Usually it’s a brief scene which represents the climax of the story or some pivotal moment. Often the image is accompanied by — or triggered by — a particular song or poem. For example — whoops, spoiler cut for the Inheritance Trilogy…


…for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the image was of two characters making love. (Ha! Fooled you! Not a spoiler, because there are several instances of characters getting horizontal in the novel. Can’t wait for my mom to read this thing.) Thing is, I can’t see the characters. I’m in the protagonist’s bedroom but it’s dark. They’re not even at the center of the image: the nearby window is, because it’s the only source of light. Moonlight is coming in through it, but even that’s growing dark because thin clouds are racing across the sky, gradually obscuring the moon, until finally even the window goes dark and the room becomes pitch black. The scene even has its own soundtrack: R.X.R.A.’s “Little Light of Love”. (Yes, from the Fifth Element. Shut up.)

This image hit me over and over again while I was writing the book. It tormented me, spurring me on so that I could get to that part and finally, finally write it. I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking, I can’t wait ’til I get to that scene, it’s going to be so cool, and then I’ll be able to sleep through the night again.

I thought this right up until the point I began writing the scene. Then I tried writing the scene according to my vision, and… it failed. Went over like a lead balloon. I wrote that scene three times and it flopped. It only worked when I stopped trying to match the scene in my head, and wrote something completely different. Then the urge vanished. Mission accomplished. I moved on, and finished the book, and slept through the night from then on.

For The Broken Kingdoms it was an image of the protagonist walking through her very strange city. She’s blind, yet she constantly “sees” glowy glimpses of strange beings at the edge of her vision — a boy made of liquid mercury, an emaciated woman with long sharp teeth, an ordinary-looking guy in an alley apparently having a street fight with invisible enemies. They’re everywhere, as she continues to walk; a young man with dragonfly wings even flits overhead. The soundtrack for this one was Bear McCreary’s version of “All Along The Watchtower” — the one used in Battlestar Galactica, yes. The fascinating thing about the image, in my mind, was the fact that the woman never reacted to all these bizarre events and people around her. She just kept walking. I had no idea what she was thinking or feeling. Was it apathy that kept her eyes forward? Fear? A city-dweller’s jaded obliviousness? No clue.

This image actually never made it into the novel, per se. What did go in was the general theme of the image: that cities are bizarre, magical places. That this woman lived surrounded by strangeness, plagued by it — to the point that it simply wasn’t strange anymore, for her. That the truly weird doesn’t need us to notice, in order for it to exist.

I can’t explain the image that’s captivating me for Book 3, because it would spoil the whole frakking trilogy. But I’ll note the song that accompanies it: Khaled’s “El Marsem”. Now, I don’t speak Arabic and have never found a good English translation of this song, but Khaled is a rai singer, and the general theme of his work (like a lot of rai) is about defiance of cultural rigidity. And there’s something about this song in particular that feels… I dunno. Defiant, yes, but also playful and triumphant. Fitting for the character I’m envisioning, and fitting for the end of the trilogy. (Any Arabic speakers out there are welcome to enlighten me. I would really like to know wtf this man is singing.)

El Marsem – Khaled

So now I’m curious to hear from other writers — anybody else get these weird obsessive images/ideas?

5 Responses »

  1. I never get images at all, exactly — sometimes I’ll see the relative locations of people and salient props, but no details of what things look like. Except for that one time I was dozing at my keyboard and had a hypnogogic vision of one of my characters; but then it faded once I woke properly. :-(

    I do get… what I think of as “scenes I really really really want to write *now*, but I mustn’t write out of order because when I write out of order my process gets all messed up and it’s a major struggle to finish the story/book”. It’s usually mostly dialogue. Invariably by the time I get to them, they don’t happen as I’d thought they’d happen, or even don’t happen at all, which is another good reason not to waste time writing them – but sometimes they’re so insistent that I scribble out the dialogue just to get it out of my head. And then by the time I get to that point it’s irrelevant so it goes in my “snipped scenes” file.

  2. Yeah I’ve never been able to write scenes out of order either. I have writer friends who do, and I’m in awe of them, because I find it too constraining — what if the scene as I write it now isn’t the scene as it needs to be then? (If that makes any sense.) But the other reason I don’t like writing them out of order is that doing so saps all the vitality out of them. I stop imagining it and wanting to get to that point in the story because I feel like I’ve already gotten there. Defeats the purpose.

  3. Sometimes I have images that spark stories (hello, doujinshi-influenced writing) but the best stories are movies that I watch happen in my head and just write down. Does not happen much anymore, alas.

  4. I never get the whole movie, just the highlights. -_- Maybe a sign of me being a GenX child, with a typical GenX attention span.

  5. Yeah, that makes perfect sense. It sounds like the same as me, in that respect. I used to write scenes as I thought of them, and then try to stitch them together, but it meant I was writing all the fun stuff first and only had the boring stuff left. And if I complained about it to other writers there’d be a bunch of people saying, “Well, if it’s boring to write then it’s boring to read, so you should just leave it out,” which might be true for them but isn’t true for me: there are plenty of scenes I find boring to write because it’d take me days, but they needed to be there and a reader would read them in half a minute.

    But since I started being really focused on writing chronologically, I can tell myself, “If you write this scene quickly then you can get to your dessert sooner,” and… a lot of the time, having that ‘dessert’ scene to anticipate kind of inspires me to do something with the boring scene which makes it fun to write and perhaps even more fun to read than it would have otherwise. So it’s win-win.