An Anything-But-Trivial Pursuit
Sometimes I pursue the work, but most often the work pursues me.
When I first started writing, I felt as if I were in constant pursuit. I followed leads, chased new ideas, and ran down publishing opportunities. I conducted frenzied Google searches about book proposals and queries.
I remember that season so vividly. Every afternoon, without fail, I would brew my coffee, pull the blinds to block out the sun, belly up to the keyboard, and write. At night, I’d fall asleep mulling over pitches only to dream that I’d landed my first book deal. Those dreams brought real surges of adrenaline. I’d wake freshly motivated to press on.
My whole life was wrapped up in the chase.
Now, many years (and projects) later, there’s been a sea change.
An online friend recently mused about trying not to bring work home at the end of the day. “But what do you do,” he asked, “when the work stalks you, chases you, and walks you down?”
I know this exact feeling. My writing life is still wrapped up in pursuit. Sometimes I pursue the work, but most often the work pursues me.
The Thrill of the Chase
The thing about writing is that it’s mostly thinking—and the best thinking happens outside of scheduled writing sessions. It starts innocently enough. My brain latches onto a new idea. There’s no use asking where ideas come from. Most often, they hit out of nowhere. Popping out into the open of my mind wanting to be seen. But I’m aware of how quickly ideas that want to be recognized change their mind and duck from sight, so I scribble them down, resolving to get to them when I can. That is if they don’t get to me first.
And since most of my work happens in my head, it's free to follow me wherever I go. And follow me it does. I’ll be driving to the store, running my daily miles, folding laundry, and there it is—the new idea—filling my mind when I least expect it.
There are certain moments I don’t mind being enveloped by my work so much—moments when I’m engaged in physically time-consuming but otherwise mentally free tasks. The moments when I’m doing chores and my brain slips its tether are some of my most productive. Washing the dishes, mopping the floor, or blasting fallen leaves down the driveway and into the woods behind the cabin with my leaf blower are wonderful opportunities for my mind to run free, chasing down whatever thoughts it wishes.
The problems arise when I need my brain and body to operate in tandem. That’s when the creative pursuit undermines my ability to function well in society. My body may be present, but the idea has pounced and my mind has been dragged off against its will.
The work is now the predator and I the prey.
In such moments, I can’t concentrate on anything happening outside of my mind in real time—no matter how engaging. And so I show up late after having made multiple u-turns. Zone out during church. Lose track of conversational threads. Fail to set the timer and burn dinner for the third time this week. Forget what day it is—and occasionally what month.
I’ll come to myself, standing in the middle of the living room, a sock in one hand, a pen in the other, with no idea where I’m headed or what I’m trying to do.
Sometimes the idea stalks me relentlessly and to exhaustion. Hoping to quiet the mental hounding, I take the afternoon off. I drive to the movie theatre, cough up the cash for admission and overpriced snacks. The theatre goes black, the screen expands, and the trailers begin—but I’m nowhere to be found. I’ve been yanked back into the underbrush, chasing down plot holes while simultaneously fleeing the specter of my own self-doubts.
This has nothing to do with force of will. Say what you will about maintaining work-life boundaries, the prey doesn’t ask to be prey. It only asks to be left alone. But there’s a monster loose in the woods, and all bets are off.
Here Be Dragons
I’m not the first writer to feel that my work has become spectral. Tolkien famously complained of The Lord of the Rings as having escaped his control: “I have produced a monster: an immensely long, complex, rather bitter, and very terrifying romance, quite unfit for children (if fit for anybody).”
Plenty of writers, creatives, and deep thinkers have expressed similar sentiments about their work. But for me, it’s less the resulting work that seems monstrous but the process of creating it.
I experience a level of neurodivergence that lends itself to hyper fixation and obsessive thoughts—at times, intrusive ones. Even in moments of seeming stillness, my mind is engaged in a constant hunt—both pursing and being pursued. An endless game of mental tag.
There’s no downtime until the game is over. When the project is complete and the mental quiet finally descends, I stand in the clearing, panting, wondering How did we get here? And who’s really chasing whom?
The push and pull can leave me exhausted, and regularly I wonder if all the mental drama is worth it.
But then I remember that the hunt isn’t an end in itself. This is all headed somewhere.
Writers are world-builders and storytellers. We speak directly to hearts, minds, and souls. Though the chase may inspire joy or heartache, we’re not here for the thrill of the hunt. This is an anything-but-trivial pursuit.
Cover image by Ramon Vloon.
 Excerpt from Tolkien’s letters, addressed to his publisher Stanley Unwin. Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (New York: Farr, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 398.