Book review: Brain storm: Harnessing the power of productive obsessions

Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions, by Eric Maisel and Ann Maisel.

Eric Maisel is a psychotherapist and a well-known creativity coach, with many books to his credit. His co-author is his wife Ann, who is, according to the jacket blurb, busy researching the productive obsessions of others. They’ve produced a book of advice and encouragement for how to engage your mind in a project that can help you find meaning and fulfillment.

This book follows up on Eric Maisel’s earlier The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path Through Depression, in which he encouraged depressed creative people to work through the depression by focusing on how they were creating meaning through their work. The basic idea was that depression is what fills your heart when the meaning has leaked out, so the key to keeping it at bay is to never take meaning for granted, but to cultivate it assiduously.

Brainstorm is more of a how-to manual for the care and feeding of projects that can give life meaning. The idea behind a productive obsession is that it gives your brain something to focus on, something that will help you channel your mental energies into something more productive than the hamster-wheel spinning of worries, fears, or regrets that can sap your energy. A productive obsession can be just about anything: writing a novel, creating a series of paintings, launching a business or a nonprofit, solving some scientific or technical problem, or resolving some vexing personal dilemma like how to balance your work and your family or how to care for an aging relative. The key thing is to find something to which you can commit yourself wholeheartedly and that will repay your sustained attention.

The introduction says this book could be read in an afternoon, and I think that’s a pretty accurate estimation. The chapters are short and the writing is engaging and approachable. However, the payoff really comes when you apply the ideas to your own productive obsession, whatever it might be. So in that sense, it’s a book for bookmarking and dipping into as your obsession unfolds.

The book is structured loosely around the progress of a typical productive obsession. It describes identifying the thing that will most happily occupy and focus your brain, clearing the decks for action, mustering the discipline to succeed, and dealing with rough patches. The successful completion of your project is then only the beginning of the next obsession. Each chapter closes with a few paragraphs of more specific counsel: suggestions for dealing with obstacles, bits of insight into the process, words of encouragement, success stories for inspiration. The book closes with an appendix about how to start your own productive obsession group online in which you can find and offer encouragement and swap stories.

My own productive obsession at the moment is a novel that I’m writing. The idea first came to me on New Year’s Day, 2007. I’ve written a lot of background and sketches, and this January 1, I resolved to finish a first draft by the end of the year. (I think I may make it.) I read the Maisels’ book with this project in mind. It struck me as containing advice of varying degrees of usefulness to me at the moment. As I read, sentences or paragraphs would leap out at me, telling me things that I either hadn’t known or had sensed only dimly. I suspect that in another reading at a different stage of my work, a different set of ideas would be highlighted. This time, I got a lot out of the parts about self-doubt, follow-through, and being patient with the process.

For example, one of the things that has bedeviled me the most about writing a novel is trying to get a handle on exactly how the process works. I figured most people don’t just sit down, like Snoopy, and type “It was a dark and stormy night,” and then move along, page after page, until “The end.” Foundations must be laid, preliminary sketches made—but how does this fit into the actual production of completed pages? I wanted someone to tell me what I was supposed to do every day. And being a mildly (or maybe moderately) obsessive type, I wanted to see results, to watch the number of words and the number of pages steadily increasing. However, that just didn’t seem to be how it worked, at least not in the beginning. I’m slowly figuring out my own process (at least for this book), but I still feel like I’m floundering sometimes. So I was brought up short by the following:

There is simply no paved road from here to there.

It was surprising how much this helped. My reaction seemed to exemplify something the book said a few pages earlier:

Yet people are convinced that there is some linear way to write a novel, build a business, or answer a scientific question. Holding to this false hope, when they enter into the turmoil of process and discover that it is messy, nonlinear, and not what they expected, they quit. If only they could accept that process is exactly this messy, they might grow calm—and enjoy themselves.

Oh. OK. Yeah, that does make sense.

Maisel talks about neuronal gestalts and uses other brain-centered language in what seems to be a largely metaphorical way. He has the experience to back him up in his observations on how brains work and what makes them happy and productive (or unhappy and stuck), but it might have been nice to have some footnotes or suggestions for further reading that address what brain science can tell us about focus, mindfulness, self-confidence, and self-doubt. With that minor caveat, though, I’d say that this book has some helpful advice and inspiration that can help you get from a vague feeling of wanting to do something big with your time and energy to actually doing something about it.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this book review – your timing is perfect. I’ll give it a read.

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