Confessions of a Failed Monomaniac

by  Virginia Parker Staat

“Beware of advice — even this.”  ~ Carl Sandburg

Captain Ahab had his whale. Quixote his windmills. Edward Abbey advocated for environmental issues. Galvin has his Snowy Range. Whether protagonist or nature writer, each could easily be considered a monomaniac with a mission.

I recently read a quote by British travel writer Robert Macfarlane, offering his advice on how to become a great nature writer. His technique is to become single-minded. He said, “Become a monomaniac. Study one thing – one species, one acre of ground, one river, one tree – until it has become either a foreign country to you (fabulously strange) or one of the things you understand best in the whole world (fabulously familiar).”

Perhaps it’s just me, but it seems a bit ironic that a travel writer would suggest sitting in one place. That being aside, the root question is this: Is becoming a monomaniac really good writing advice? The truth is that each of us has our own way of working in this world. Macfarlane’s advice certainly doesn’t fit with mine.

I confess that I am a failed monomaniac. The technique simply doesn’t work for me. Perhaps it is because of my ADHD tendency (which in my era was simply tagged as an inability to sit still). Even now, I continue to be a kinesthetic learner with an end-result personality. It bleeds into my writing. I change genres at the drop of a pencil… fiction, nonfiction, picture books, short stories, nature writing, and essays. I dabble in just about every conceivable age category. I write about nature, travel, and the craft of writing. On occasion, I even wax rhapsodic.

The problem with famous writers offering writing advice is that one shoe simply doesn’t fit all. As we work to master the craft, we writers often focus on specific techniques, believing that somehow if we emulate a successful writer’s formula that it will work for us as well.

Does this mean that Macfarlane’s monomaniac writing technique is wrong? Certainly not for him. He has studied his craft and found what works for his way of being in the world.

I believe therein lies a writer’s biggest challenge… to know your way of working well enough to use techniques that support you and your writing. To begin this journey, ask yourself some introspective questions. How do you approach ordinary tasks? What is your role when working in a group? How do you spend your quiet time? Find out your personality type by taking a personality evaluation (like Myers-Briggs®, Keirsey®, or Strengthsfinder®); then analyze what it means to be you. Watch yourself closely so that you know what makes you feel alive when you write.

I also encourage you to experiment with a variety of writing techniques until you discover what works best for you. Write for a set number of hours every day. Read widely. Try writing exercises like those found in John Murray’s Writing about Nature or Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. If being a monomaniac works for you, go for it.

Early in my writing career, I, too, tried many of these writing techniques. After countless hours of forcing myself to sit in a chair, feeling like a remorseful three-year-old in time out, I gave it up. I do read widely… as a visual learner, I enjoy examining how others resolve issues. Like Lamott, I collect scribbles. In all honesty, just thinking about the whole monomaniac thing gives me chills.

If I were to distill the writing techniques that fit my way of working, I would include two: S. Alex Martin said, “Walk, talk, breathe, laugh, cry, fall, rise, fail, succeed, run, jump, love, hate, hide, seek, learn, work, play, feel, LIVE. Then write it down.” The second is by William Wordsworth, “Fill your pages with the breathings of your heart.” This is the kind of writing that makes sense to me… to write about something that I love… to inform, to heal, to inspire.

I promise that you will feel absolutely liberated when you find your way of working, of being in the world, of writing. It gives you permission, allowing you the freedom you need to come alive in your work, bringing you more joy and confidence in your writing gifts. In my humble opinion, only then you can become a true monomaniac with a mission… the one that champions change, reveals a reality, or gives voice to a vision. The best part is that you’ll even have fun in the process.