Brain-Ache: The Passion Problem

When I started this blog my goal was to occasionally post items of personal interest, the strange and unexpected rabbit holes that I find myself going down now and again.  Some topics recur, such as nuclear energy and accidents.  I have a fascination with stepwells that often sends me into hours of searching through photo galleries and amateur videos.  Underground cities are like catnip to me. And although I’m skeptical of all paranormal phenomena, I consume everything I can find about the unexplained, like numbers stations. I have a bad habit of listening to recordings late at night when my imagination gets away from me. Once you pick up a mystery, how can you put it down? This is what I intended to blog about.

I am intensely fascinated by the dynasty of China’s Emperor Qin, which means I search for new archeological information about his buried tomb more frequently than researchers can report findings. I spend too much time reading about fictional monsters, in particular those imagined by H. P. Lovecraft and Dan Simmons’ Shrike from the Hyperion Cantos.  And my love of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky runs so deep that it practically permeates my blood, and searches for fan depictions of the beast sometimes dominate my browser history.

Recently I turned to the internet to look up the etymology of the word “okay” and ended up spending an entire weekend reading about Victorian-era slang.

It doesn’t take much to send me down a rabbit hole.  I may spot a photo, say an image of Luna Park in Sydney, Australia.  A thought pops into my head: How many recreational places use a motif of a giant face? Turns out there are a lot. Whoops, it’s 2 a.m. and I have to be up in 4 hours.

And God help me, once I found out she existed, how was I supposed to resist spending three days researching the origin and evolution of Laffing Sal?  Trust that that little escapade ended with me logged into my eBay account, looking for an original 78 rpm record of the Laffing Sal recording. Because that’s how I do.

The problem with passion is that it can become all-consuming.  I describe myself as an “all in,” personality.  When I fixate on something fascinating it becomes all I can think about, and doing anything other than acquiring knowledge burns like fire. It fills my brain to excess.

When I’m on a research bender I experience physical symptoms, exhilaration and the adrenaline rush of discovery, a literal high.  But I also experience headaches and nausea when I don’t give myself breaks. I become quite literally sick of my interests.

Writing is a flavor of this passion problem.  Rather than inputting information, writing is an intense exercise of outputting information.  But it’s just as all-consuming and it comes with its own highs and lows that manifest as physical sensations. When research and writing coincide, it can feel simultaneously like riding a roller coaster and coming down with the flu.

This is the quandary I find myself in now.  My previous post about Briarcliff Mansion contained just a tiny fraction of the information I’ve gathered so far in my research into the Candler family. I went looking for a small answer and fell down a rabbit hole so deep that I don’t know when I’ll climb out. I’m supersaturated with the subject and still uncovering new details every day. I’ve visited locations and walked properties and compiled endless notes and made phone calls to strangers who understandably pause in bewilderment when I explain my reason for calling. It’s a bit like a fever that hasn’t broken yet, and I feel both energized and poisoned by it.

I’m a fan of the work of genius monologuist Spalding Gray. In his performance titled Monster in a Box about his struggles while attempting to write his first novel, he says the following:

“And finally I did get down to the writing. I got down to it and it was awful. I don’t know why I’d romanticized it. It’s disgusting. Writing is like a disease, it is a disease. It steals your body from you.” – Spalding Gray

I often think about his description of writing as a disease that steals your body from you. I can’t say I disagree. The feverish pitch of research in the relentless pursuit of “accuracy,” whatever subjective criteria defines it, is both gratifying and toxic. I have overdosed on the minutiae of history. But then I sit down to write and the minutiae contaminating my brain makes the difference between fiction that feels like fiction and fiction that feels real. The brain-ache is an essential part of my process.

Binge research-writing is the compulsion to go all-in, to consume beyond capacity, and doing so produces a lovely flush of reward hormones when the urge is satisfied. The aftermath is sometimes filled with awkward, self-conscious, even embarrassed self-reflection as I realize how many hours my family and friends have spent listening to me drone on and on. Did I consume all of that? Yes. Am I going to do it again? Yes.

So where does that leave this blog? In limbo, perhaps, but certainly a future exists. Right now as I struggle to turn historical records into story I can think of nothing else, and all other interests cease to catch my attention. When I’m done I’ll be well and truly done, and in the meantime I’ll keep feathering the throttle, trying to maintain the balance between the thrill and the agony of an all-consuming passion.

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