Tracing My Obsession

Tracing My Obsession

Tracing My Obsession 150 150 Nathaniel Lee Hansen

It’s been said that if you’re a writer, you write about your obsessions, whether you intend to or not.

For me, that means poems and short stories (the bulk of what I write) set in open spaces on the northern plains. Wind is a breeze, sometimes a gust, but never not blowing. Specific seasons matter. Sky is ever-present. Corn, soybeans, wheat, sunflowers in their distinct fields with neat rows are in the lines and sentences of my stanzas and paragraphs, my fields hopefully cleared of rocks.

Someone is driving somewhere through these landscapes, but among these agrarian and pastoral elements, though, there is a darker motif that I’ve only recently discovered: my unhealthy obsession with food.

In 15 months of therapy, I’ve made tremendous progress, grateful for the distance I’ve traveled. I am surely not there yet, but I can’t imagine where I’d be had I not begun the process of plowing those fields of my past, unearthing those rocks that will be picked up, each spring turning up new ones.

In my as-of-yet unpublished novella Measuring Time (which was initially a short story, and then went through 4 full novel-length drafts) the main character is a runner, a high-school kid. A sort of me, a sort of not-me. (He lives on farm after all, and I didn’t.) He is also faster than I was at that age.

At one point in the drafting process I suspected that this 16-year-old boy has an eating disorder, that he is running himself into the ground. He is driven, he is obsessed, he rarely takes a day off. There is that scene where he faints in a restaurant bathroom.

I remember thinking that he was trying to stay as skinny as possible. After all, you don’t want extra weight to hold you back if you’re running cross country.

While working on that piece over several years, of course I had my own desires to be thinner. I was thinner than I had been since high school. I couldn’t see the facts in front of me: I was depicting my own unknown-to-me disorder.

And then there was the moment in one of my MFA classes in 2002—this in one of my first attempts at short fiction—when someone commented, why is there so much discussion about what the two characters are going to order in the restaurant? Who cares?

I was hurt by the comment;I thought the discussion was crucial to the story, but looking back now, the criticism fits. The two characters’ discussion did not serve to advance the drama, to develop their characters. The characters’ discussion was crucial to me but not to the story. My disorder was manifesting itself there, too.

A few months into my therapy, I began looking back through my drafts, even my published pieces: poems, short stories, and essays, a few novel drafts. Food was prominent in the lives of the poem’s speakers, the stories’ characters. Food was everywhere. In so much of what I wrote, there was a plate of this, descriptions of that, and characters eating or planning what to eat.

At some level, I get it—drama often ensues over food, and eating is a fundamental need.

It is all so obvious now, but it wasn’t then. I was oblivious despite food’s ubiquitous presence. Even in some of the pieces I was drafting in 2014 and 2015, there is a wrestling with food obsessions. Right there in plain sight. Still I did not consider myself as someone with a problem.

My thought process was for so many years focused on what I ate, what I would eat next, and what I would eat tomorrow. So it only makes sense that my mindset would trickle (or sometimes pour) onto the stanzas of my poems, into the sentences of my prose. The table was always being set.

Yes, just as my writing is in process, I am in process, and I am being remade by the Author of my faith. In the One who has begun this work in me and who will continue it until the day of completion, I will take my rest, and I will be satisfied.


Nathaniel Lee Hansen

I’m a poet, fiction writer, and essayist. My chapbook, Four Seasons West of the 95th Meridian, was published by Spoon River Poetry Press (2014). My work has appeared in Christianity and Literature, Prairie Gold: An Anthology of the American Heartland, Blast Furnace, Driftwood Press, Whitefish Review, The Cresset, Midwestern Gothic, and South Dakota Review, among others. I currently serve as an assistant professor of English & Creative Writing at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, Texas. I also edit Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature and direct the annual Windhover Writers’ Festival. When not writing or teaching, I run, read, play piano, listen to music, and play disc golf. My greatest joys are my wife, my son, and my daughter. I was born in southern Minnesota, but while growing up, I had little interest in the Plains and opens spaces. A stint at a rural state liberal arts college in southwestern Minnesota, as well as grad-school stints in northwestern Minnesota and southeastern South Dakota, altered my interests. @plainswriter,, &

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