AU’s Writer-in-Residence Speaks

The Role of Obsession and Illusion in Creative Work

Young creatives should embrace obsession even though they may end up failing in the process, says Athabasca’s new writer-in-residence, because then they will be making something important.

Canadian novelist and poet, Steven Heighton, delivered this advice to Athabasca Edmonton students at Peace Hills Trust Tower Friday (Jan.17), as part of a larger, livestreamed discussion on disillusionment.

Heighton recalled the industry buzz surrounding his first novel, “The Shadow Boxer” (Knopf Canada, 2000), which discussed the fictional struggles of a small-town young poet and boxer who moves to the big city seeking success.  Heighton said there were structural weaknesses in the book that he and his editors ignored during writing.  Numerous critics pointed out these flaws in their reviews.

The debut offering thus produced muted sales, and Heighton did not earn a profit beyond the advance payment for his work, he told the audience.  Looking back, he added, he does not regret the disappointment.  “Few things damage a career like an undeserved hit,” he said.  Yet creative artists are often fuelled on obsession during the early stage of their development, Heighton said—including himself.  In the decades since, however, a more mature Heighton continued writing.  He has now completed more than a dozen books and received numerous accolades for his work, including the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry in 2016.

Heighton philosophized about the English language’s prefix “dis-“, which in most cases implies a negative, he said.  Examples include “disorder”, “disprove” and “disenchant”.  Yet the word “disillusion”, he added, implies a paradox.  Perhaps the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno – so famed for his own paradoxes – would have enjoyed this play on words, Heighton joked.

“If illusion is a negative …  disillusionment must be a positive,” he explained.  “Yet in common parlance, it is anything but.”  Based on his first novel experience, Heighton described disillusionment as “an acute, painful sensation” that goes to the very atoms of one’s being.

A quarterly magazine recently asked the 58-year-old to write advice to his younger self.  Heighton eventually submitted a 17-point list.  Although obsession can lead to disillusionment, one piece of advice was to nonetheless go in the direction of your obsessions.  “If it doesn’t haunt you, you’ll never write it well,” Heighton explained.

He added that, with age and experience, novelists can learn to understand their obsessions and illusions, even though they will likely experience some paradoxes along the way.  For example, he said, a common question among artists is whether to take medication to stabilize depressive moods that often fuel the creative process.

Heighton cautioned that answering that question is too difficult for a short talk.  He offered, however, the hope that artists will “exorcise the demons while writing”—and may even come to understand those demons as they work.

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