Obsessed With Doing Something Else. ANYTHING Else.

Last Sunday, I took advantage of the fact that it was Father’s Day and (in the words of my daughter) “you should do whatever you want” to play about seven hours of Civilization V. I got the game a few weeks ago in one of those software bundles* never having played Civilization in any form. In fact, all I knew about it was that Brentalfloss made a song about it which includes these catchy lyrics:

So keep playing Civilization, take good care of your little nation
Start a war with ancient Egyptians, spread your equally valid religion
Win with science, culture, or napalm
Watch out, Gandhi might drop the A-bomb

This isn’t actually an article about Civ V, by the way. It’s an article about how some writers (like me) get obsessed with a thing to the exclusion of what we should be doing.

Perhaps you can relate.

Gameplay screenshot from Civilization V.
In the grand scheme of things, playing computer games should be way the hell down there. I have a lot of things that need doing, and a lot of things I want to be doing. In addition to my day job, I teach at a local university, and I’ve signed a contract to write half of the curriculum for a year-long course. I really ought to be farther along, but… well, I’m not. I’ll have it done on time (and it’s not due for a couple of months yet), but I could’ve spent the 33 hours I’ve wasted on Civ V working on that curriculum.

I could also be writing. I should be writing. I have a novel completely outlined, and I’m 9.5 chapters in (of about 30). I’m actively looking forward to the Final Boss Fight, and I can’t wait to see how my MC takes the notes I’ve made and turns them into (spoiler alert!) her victory**. Of course, that’s still 18 chapters away, and I’m not going to get to see that scene if I don’t hurry up and write more. (Also, my writing group is going to be wicked pissed if I leave them hanging.)

I also have several short-stories that I’m in the process of writing, editing, rewriting, and submitting. And even if I didn’t, I could’ve started a new one out of my ideas file — I have one somewhere about those Apple/iTunes EULAs and TOSes that’s been percolating in the back of my brain for quite some time.

But what did I do last weekend instead of writing (besides play a flaming crap-ton of Civilization)? Let’s see:

  1. Researched smoothie recipes.
  2. Caught up on my RSS feeds.
  3. Read some fanfic (go ahead and laugh).
  4. Watched two films (Paul and Another Earth) and three episodes of Deep Space Nine.
  5. Put away some laundry and ran three loads in the dishwasher (admittedly these things needed to be done).
  6. Spent far too much time in the kitchen instead of making a simple meal.
  7. Added more stuff to my quotes blog.
  8. Took the car in for some minor repairs — this was necessary, but I spent an hour there reading when I could’ve brought my computer and done some actual work. They just built a nice “quiet room” for that very purpose.

And what could I have done to better utilize my time?

  1. Mow the lawn — which would’ve given me the opportunity to catch up on my ginormous podcast backlog.
  2. Clean the kitchen — specifically my range top.
  3. Write my book or my short-stories.
  4. Read more of the novel I’m supposed to be reviewing.
  5. Work on the curriculum I’m contracted to complete.

What happened, then? What made me not do what I’m supposed to do?

Call it obsession; call it tunnel-vision; call it single-mindedness. Call it what you want, but it’s caught me, and it won’t let me go.

Sometimes I can channel the obsessiveness into production — last week, I wrote about 10,000 words on a novella. A few months ago, I wrote 14,000 words in one weekend. When I started writing the new novel, I knocked out the entire 4000-word first chapter in one evening, and while I was writing my previous novel there were times when I wrote multiple chapters in a week despite being on vacation or working late. And just before I had major surgery in 2009, I wrote an entire 18,000-word novella in two marathon writing sessions over two nights. (Admittedly that last one was because I wanted to get the idea out just in case I didn’t make it, but clearly I did. Still haven’t sold that novella, by the way. Really ought to be revising it, maybe turning it into a novel.)

But usually… usually I can’t. Usually I open up a Google Doc and stare at it for a few minutes before flipping over to Hootsuite or Google Reader and skimming through information feeds. If I don’t have internet, I’ll take out my phone and read something. Or go into the kitchen and do the dishes. Or play Plants vs Zombies even though I’ve defeated it about 12 times. Or do anything to avoid writing.

My hope is that I can catch my brain unawares and activate the obsession for what it’s supposed to do: help me write more words, and help me write them faster. Unfortunately, what often ends up happening lately is that I hit the icon for Civ V and, 45 minutes later, realize just how much time I’ve wasted. Then I inevitably decide the whole evening is a wash and just play through until 10:00 before going to bed.

If it wasn’t Civ V, it’d be something else — the last thing that caught my attention like this was a watch-through of Buffy and Angel***. Before that, it was photo editing. Before that, it was recording and editing stories for podcasts. Before that, it was Words With Friends / Wordfeud. Before that… well, I can’t remember that far. But there’s always been something vying for my attention — and winning.

I’m sure there are writers who can fight off the obsession, or channel it properly. I just don’t have that ability. I hate that I don’t, but that’s life.

At least Civ V is a pretty awesome game. I’d feel a lot worse if I’d gotten sucked into Farmville.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go back to thinking up excuses. Beats the hell out of actually writing something.


* I actually bought the package for Parallels, a program to create true non-dual-boot virtual machines on my Macbook. I’m sure there are better (or free) versions, but I’m familiar with Parallels and it was only $50 for nine pieces of software, so I really couldn’t complain. I haven’t actually run Parallels yet, which shows you just how often I actually need it, but still.

** The book is written in the first person. It’s pretty obvious that she doesn’t die, and that usually means the MC wins. Besides, by the time it comes out, you’ll probably have forgotten about this post.

*** Don’t worry; I’m not going to write a bunch of posts about Civ V. I learned my lesson.