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Book Review: Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions by Eric Maisel

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According to the Oxford English Dictionary I have on my shelf, an obsession is an unhealthy attachment to another person, being, object, or idea; a condition in need of a cure. Eric Maisel’s latest book is not about a condition in need of a cure. Instead he writes about the productive obsessions at the heart of all meaning making. These are the big ideas and visions that great people pursue with the kind of devotion that is required to do anything long term and large scale. For artists of all kinds, Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions is a powerful reminder that it takes the intensity and pain of an obsession to do anything grand, and that this is something worthwhile – something that gives life meaning and is the best use of our time.

In true Maisel style, the book doesn’t simplify or whitewash the difficulty inherent in making meaning. Maisel is deeply familiar with the existential demons and complexities that confront artists, and is careful to present these and the artist’s obsessive quest in a realistic light. Failure is always possible – that’s part and parcel of why the journey is worthwhile. Creation always involves a leap into the unknown, but not just any unknown, an unknown that we've begun to perceive and are drawn to from some innate, true part of ourselves. The book is open about the relationship between productive obsessions – that is absorption in an idea that becomes a project that becomes some kind of realised achievement which benefits others, and unproductive obsessions which expend mental energy in the form of destructive distraction that involves more dreaming than producing.

Although  Brainstorm explores a reasonably esoteric topic, the focus is practical, and takes a 'self-help' approach. Every word is addressed directly to the reader, with instructions that are workable and guided towards action:

Choose your productive obsession right now. Maybe you know exactly which one to select. Even if you’re positive, give your idea a once-over and make sure it meets your current meaning needs and intentions. Maybe you have several good candidates but aren’t sure which one to choose. Take your best guess, and commit to obsessing for a month.

The book is divided into 28 short chapters, each of which explores some aspect of the process of turning creative obsessions into productive obsessions — that lead to something concrete — a painting, a novel, a new business. A number of the chapters conclude with an anecdotal example of someone who has achieved something through obsession, while others conclude with affirmations or quotations. Throughout  Brainstorm are examples from Maisel’s own practice, from his own experience, and from information gained through his productive obsession group. This includes one, two and three week reports which make clear some of the issues that have confronted his team as they struggled to work with obsession, and how they were dealt with. Some of the key demons that confront the productively obsessed are tackled, such as the sheer amount of work that’s required to see an obsession through fruition, emotional conflict, endurance, a lack of self-confidence, fear and risk. There are tips for dealing with each of these. For those who would follow the example set by Maisel and create their own productive obsession group, there are also tips for starting one up.

Above all, this is a book that challenges the creative person to prioritise and obsess about those things that matter most – not to let the small scale distractions that form the basis of most of our lives stop us from achieving our true potential:

You can halt a brainstorm with a feature. All you have to do is keep looking up or looking away. All you have to do is to take no real interest in your own ideas. All you have to do is secretly doubt that your efforts matter. All you have to do is get in the habit of calling yourself “easily distractible” and buy every available distraction. If you want to make absolutely sure that you will not be able to concentrate, all you have to do is not commit. That will guarantee that the slightest change in barometric pressure will distract you.

Maisel’s work is all about how to live a meaningful life, through art or some other large creative endeavour. In Brainstorm he addresses the reader as fellow creator, and encourages the most expansive perspective, and the most committed, deepest leap into meaning making. This is no trivial message. It’s at the heart of a purposeful life, and in a world where nearly all of the media messages that are being bombarded at us are focused on the opposite — consume, scan, move fast from one interest to the next, and live life lightly — this is critically, utterly important. This is a book that should be read by all who want to live their life in a way that is vital and leaves some kind of legacy. It’s not about fame and fortune, but rather, about ensuring that this brief span that we have on Earth is one that has value – where we leave some kind of impression. There’s nothing that matters more.

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About Magdalena Ball

Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Sublime Planet, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.