Clay: The Good Obsession

Going back through my inbox I ran across an article I saved a few months ago. At the time I was writing a blog series about learning and the brain and this was one of the research gems that I stashed away for a rainy day. The article is an interview about brainstorming and other forms of idea creation. Vern Burkhardt and Eric Maisel approach the topic from many angles but the one that stuck with me is the concept of a productive obsession. Here is what they had to say.

VB: How does a 'productive obsession' lead us to have a brainstorm?
Eric Maisel: It's probably valuable to circle back to some basics. The word 'obsession' got defined in clinical practice a century ago as an unwanted intrusive thought, and so in the clinical world there's been no way to talk about productive or positive obsessions because all obsessions have been defined as a negative thing. This way of looking at an obsession has bled into the general culture. As a result we have lots of talk about obsessive-compulsive disorder and what have you. There's a general feeling that obsessions are negative things.

However, artists, scientists, innovators, and smart thinkers have known for thousands of years that there are productive obsessions. There are ways of biting into things that are wonderful. Unproductive obsessions, the kinds of obsessions that clinicians talk about, are rooted in anxiety whereas productive obsessions are rooted in our meaning-making needs, in our desire to have a meaningful life.

Having that as backdrop, a productive obsession is our attempt to make meaning. It isn't our only attempt. We also like to make meaning in lots of other ways, whether it's through relationships, activism, service, or what have you.

We have lots of different meaning-making containers in life, and thinking hard about something is one meaning-making container. Because our whole being resonates with the idea of making meaning, and because we take pride in the idea of making meaning, once we understand the concept of meaning we take pride in doing it. A productive obsession leads to a brainstorm because our whole being is turning ourselves over to this meaning-making activity.

In a way, to use a certain kind of metaphor, we've decided to be the hero of our own story and make a certain choices in a certain direction. And when we do that our brain is activated, is happy to have been given these marching orders, and it wants to march in that direction.

Vern Burkhardt IdeaConnection Interview with Eric Maisel, Co-author of Brainstorm, and Creative Recovery, and Author of Coaching the Artist Within, Fearless Creating, The Van Gogh Blues, and Thirty-One Other Books 

Being an obsessive person I have to agree that a tendency to over think is not a bad thing. After all the brain functions much like a muscle in that the more it is used for a specific purpose the better it becomes in achieving that purpose. Put in the wrong direction obsession can be dangerous, but focused on something productive like pottery, obsession can be an endless fuel for creativity.

One example of positive obsession is my work ethic. It originates from the ability and desire to be absorbed at the task at hand. This absorption is a physical manifestation of mental obsession. If I go too long without the feeling of being absorbed in work I start to feel unfulfilled and restless. Being fully engaged in process has become a vitamin that I must take to keep my creative self healthy.

If I reach the point of being fully engaged a switch turns on in my brain and I access a hidden store of new ideas. The more I work the more ideas I have. I have never been a sketch book artist that sits down to draw out the next body of work. I am much more likely to start with one form and through engaging the work process develop four more.

Another example of positive obsessive is the link between repetitious thinking and the "more is more" aesthetic. My decorations are built on multiple overlapping elements that criss cross into a visual mass of petals and leaves. They represent the surge of thoughts that can happen during any given day. Open decorative space on the other hand represents the times in my life when the thoughts in my head are muted by a large in-breath of stillness. Both on the surface of my pots and in my mind I am working to balance activity and rest.

After years of swinging between dense decoration and unmarked forms I realize I can't be satisfied with one without the other. Embracing them both is the only way for me to feel my pieces are finished. The surface of my pots are a great metaphor for my life. By accepting both the potential for chaos and stillness in my thinking I have come to a place of acceptance with my brain. No matter what direction my head chooses to go I can always be grounded in the positive obsession of pottery.

My next post will be about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 's theory of flow, or a pleasurable feeling based on sustained activity.


  1. Hi, Loved your post! I'm a former educator and have done lots of work around the brain and learner, so your ideas about productive obsession struck a note with me. That is certainly true in my case! I'm OBSESSED with developing my pottery skills! I've done pottery for 30 years on a part time basis-always learning and TRYING! but now I'm OBSESSED! So all good!

    1. Hello Marian, I'm glad to hear from another kindred spirit and thanks for reading my blog. I like to hear that you have 30 years of making and now your are getting even more obsessed. I'm always confused when I hear about people leaving clay after many years for other professions. The more I work the more I want to work.

      Happy Potting!

  2. I agree with what you say about being absorbed in a task, it just carries you away and you do find your rhythm its a difficult thing to explain!

    1. Hello Victoria, Isn't it amazing how absorbed a person can get in the studio. Our brains almost switch onto another frequency when we are absorbed in a task. My next post is about Csikszentmihalyi's "flow" theory which codifies this type of experience. Interesting stuff.

      Thanks for stopping by the blog. Hope you are doing well.