The Writer’s Paradoxes of Passion

What are good principles on which to base a writing practice? In seeking such principles, it is pretty easy to find intractable problems or unanswerable questions.  Sometimes these intractable problems are tradeoffs, like the tradeoff between time and quality: you can always spend more time to improve the quality of a work, but timeliness is itself an important characteristic, so one is trading quality for promptness.  There’s no right answer there, but it’s not quite what I would call a paradox in that it is not inherently self-contradictory.  When it comes to passion in writing, however, there are paradoxical elements: you need to have a passion for what you do at the same time as you remain apathetic about it. This can manifest on a few different levels.

Passion for abstract quality

Whether artist or scholar, writers have a sense of what will make a work good. Having some vision of what you want to create—a sense that it must be just so—that it must have certain specific qualities—this is crucial to doing work of quality.  Sensitivity to the finer points of your work is invaluable, and a passion to get them right is important in finding the energy to deal with all the necessary details.

This same driving passion, however, can be paralyzing, as anyone who has ever struggled with perfectionism knows. So the writer (or other practitioner) simultaneously needs (1) to be passionate about creating a work of quality and (2) able to accept flaws in that same work.  This first paradox of passion is, perhaps, not so much a clear paradox in the sense that it is inherently self-contradictory, but rather a matter of finding the balance between the passion for precision and surrendering that care at certain moments.  It is a matter of striking a balance where something is good enough despite imperfection.

Passion for personal significance.  

If you care about something passionately, that can be motivating, and it can also be problematic. There is a dissertation-writing book that suggests that the best topic for a dissertation is basically something that you don’t care about but that can tolerate because caring too much can be a problem. I’m not a big fan of that idea or approach, but I do understand and agree that passion for a subject can be problematic in research. There are two problems: (1) passion about a project can certainly lead to being over-ambitious, which can lead to difficulty in completing a project,  and (2) passion can lead to disillusionment when the grand ideas meet the practical difficulties of bringing a project to completion. That’s the basic argument for how a passion for personal significance can interfere with action.

The flip side of that argument is that personal significance is crucial for motivation and for avoiding emotional malaise.  The basic principle of Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning is that people are emotionally healthier and better able to overcome difficulties if they see a meaning in what they do.

Personally,  I agree with Frankl. I think it’s crazy to start a project that you explicitly choose for being uninteresting.  I think that’s a good recipe for ensuring that you’re miserable with your work. Still, there is some truth that the same passion that motivates us and makes work fulfilling can become an impediment to dealing with practical limitations.  Our passion may be sparked by a grand, sprawling vision, and the work that we can personally realize may be so frustratingly limited as to disappoint, and thus interfere with motivation.

On a certain level, this is a question of risk and reward: the more passion you have for a project, the greater the impact you feel from any success or failure.  (There are, of course, other factors in measuring risk and reward.) As the level of personal care increases, there is greater motivation to reap the potential personal rewards of success, but that can be accompanied by an uncomfortable increase in apprehension about potential bad outcomes.

In any event, in this sense, we can say that there is a paradox of passion because the passion for personal significance can both help and hinder the creative process.

Passion for communication

If you’re writing to reach others—if you have some message that you want to share—there is an important role for caring about communication and communicating well.  Writers often care deeply about what their audience will think.  This passion can directly contribute to fear of writing: plenty of people get stuck thinking about the negative feedback they might receive in the future (especially if they have struggled to deal with negative feedback received earlier). If you’re writing a journal for yourself or making notes to explore some idea, of course, then there’s no real relevant concern for others.  But most writing has to do with reaching an audience.  

I would guess that the first audience most of us write for is our school teachers, which has the unfortunate consequence of getting many to think of writing as an unpleasant task whose primary upshot is criticism of the limits of our writing. As a result, thinking about writing for an audience triggers anxiety about writing well enough and about receiving negative feedback. Because of this association, one of my principles for developing a good writing practice is to write without concern for what others will think.  If you’re spending your efforts worrying about other people, it takes your attention from your subject, and increases stress related to potential outcomes of your effort.  You need, in other words, to put aside a passion for communication to write easily so that you can focus on your own ideas. But that’s an approach that is really only useful for breaking through anxiety-based writing blocks.  

Once, you start to actually write, it’s valuable to think about your audience and what they would like.  Focusing on your audience and on trying to understand them and their interests helps because writing is about communicating with others (at least sometimes).  Thinking about writing in terms of communication can help shift the sometimes problematic relationship with grammar and punctuation: if you think of grammar, spelling, and punctuation as complicated rules that you have to follow or be punished, then it’s natural to fret about whether you’re getting them right or wrong.  If, however, you think of them as tools that help you communicate more effectively, your focus will remain on the ideas you want to communicate, and difficulties with grammar, etc. will not bring your writing to a complete halt.  Thinking in terms of communication helps keep the focus on the ideas that you want to express: what is the message that you are trying to express? Please note that I distinguish between thinking about how to communicate your own ideas to various audiences, and trying to write what you think that audience wants to hear.  A passion for communicating your own ideas is good, so long as that focus on your own ideas doesn’t blind you to the difficulties in communicating to different audiences.

Writing is hard for many reasons. Passion can carry the writer through those difficulties.  On the whole, I strongly recommend trying to find things that you do care about when you write, and to care about how well you write. Nonetheless, passion can lead into some problems, too, and thus the paradox: the same passion that is beneficial can also inhibit the work.