Perseverate: to repeat a thought or action after the stimulus that prompted it has ceased.
I spent the summer of 2005 working at a center for gifted children (as in, 6-year-olds with SAT scores high enough to get into decent colleges), and one of the habits we were trained to watch out for was perseveration: there was an ultra-fine line between nurturing a kid’s obsession with existence theorems and allowing it to spiral out into compulsion.
Perseveration—to be completely consumed by an idea to the point that one is unable to let it go—is a marker of both giftedness and autism. It’s also a habit of very good writers.
Good writers take the simplest ideas and simultaneously unwind and expand them through perseveration. They give their narrators the freedom to pause at the tiniest details of life, things most people would pass over, and to ruminate, exploring every tangentially related line of thought, exhausting all possible meanings. These narrators will harp on a mispronounced word, a pleasantly burnt smell, a certain light at a particular time of day, picking at it until it is exposed entirely.
My favorite narrators are the ones who know they do it. Leo Gursky from Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love: “There are things I find hard to describe. And yet I persist like a stubborn mule in my efforts…. Over and over, I read the pages of the book I’d written as a young man…. But. I didn’t get any closer to solving the mystery.”
The characters we love are all big-time perserverators. It is their obsession that leads us along as we read.
A while ago, I made a list of my own preoccupations as a writer, things that pop up again and again in my writing, the fixations of my subconscious. Harsh seasons. Milk. Misrememberings. Prairie grasses. Some mornings when I sit down to write, I begin by choosing a topic from my list. Then, I unleash a narrator to do a little perseverating. What I’ve found: allowing my characters to get a little hung up is usually the only way to really get anywhere.