Being passionate about something often qualifies as the threshold separating those who are serious about every aspect of the subject matter and those who merely do something for fun. Having a writing passion is considered akin to being a dedicated writer who has a vastly better chance to be successful.
But is that assumption correct?
To answer that properly, it’s important to understand that “passion”—not to mention “success”—is a vague concept; it can mean different things to different people. As a result, we first need to define both success and passion.
In this context, I define “success in writing” very simply: It refers to being mostly happy with what you’ve written, feeling you mostly managed to express what you intended. Two central reasons are essential for understanding the dynamics involved in the keyword “mostly”:
So, what about writing passion? Again, for the purposes of this post, I define it as an excessive focus on one’s writing, or the fixation on a tangible target such as word count or number of completed projects, even to the point of obsession. Where “excessive” becomes “obsessive” is something we’ll return to in a while.
In this post, I’ll explain why being passionate about writing can actually be damaging to one’s skills—not to mention work-life balance—and I’ll offer alternatives that can help a writer improve their craft while still maintaining this precious balance.
Before we talk about hobbies, passions, writing, and how it all comes together, we need to remember what writing is.
No, I’m not being tongue-in-cheek; I mean that quite literally.
You see, in our hectic world and our digitized life, where everything seems to happen at the same time, we have a tendency to take things for granted. Writing is one such … thing, as we sadly reduce it to something merely functional, losing the affective context hiding beneath writing.
In simpler words: The more we write, the more we write mechanically.
Yet writing is about experiences. To write is to recall an experience, to understand its significance, to tie this personal experience to those of other people. In a way, whether you write a novel or a personal essay, a blog post or an op-ed, what you do is translate an experience.
In this framework, you might be tempted to say “A-ha, so we need passion!” As I said, it’s a well-established notion, as it assumes that a writer who’s passionate (perhaps even obsessed) can invariably produce better results.
So let’s see why the exact opposite is the case.
In the introduction, I promised you I’d open up the concept of having an excessive focus on writing. Indeed, excess is the key factor here, so let’s get some assumptions and misconceptions out of the way.
Yes, of course a writer needs to actually like what they’re doing. Yes, of course writing is often more than “just a hobby” for a serious writer. And no, there’s nothing wrong with going to sleep thinking about writing and wanting to start writing as soon as you wake up.
Problems begin when such thoughts, desires, and actions—such passion—begin to interfere with the foundation of writing: experience.
If having a writing passion means you shut yourself in your room and stop talking to people or even taking care of your basic needs, then you don’t need me to tell you there’s a problem. But even in less extreme cases, a subtle writing passion (quite the oxymoron, I do confess) can be damaging if it interferes with acquiring the building blocks of experience.
Writers don’t live in a vacuum, and they most certainly don’t “come up with stuff” out of thin air. Before writing, a writer needs to go out, live life, experience the world, engage in discussions, see things. If your writing passion forces you to abandon actually living in order to write, bad things will happen.
At the very least, your creativity will suffer. And even if it doesn’t, you will most likely cause damage to yourself, either physically—if, for instance, you neglect healthy eating or exercising—or mentally, by alienating yourself from the people close to you.
Just take a look at every tortured artist in history: Though having a passion didn’t hurt their creativity, it certainly hurt them personally, a lot—indeed, often with irreversible consequences. They have offered the world art of timeless beauty, yet they suffered greatly, losing friends, family, loved ones, and even their lives—often before they could see their art recognized. Most of us would very likely prefer to avoid such a fate.
So, is there an alternative?
As with virtually everything in life, it’s all a matter of priorities. There are, I’m sure, people who would like to take a chance at being the next Charles Bukowski, Vincent van Gogh, or Amy Winehouse, regardless of what happened to those artists. The truth is, much more likely than not, someone trying such a life would end up with all the consequences and none of the glory.
That’s a huge risk to take.
Remember my definition of success? It involves being happy, and it involves taking care of yourself, all while you have a healthy desire to make improvements, albeit small. So, how can we apply that to writing? The specifics might vary depending on your particular situation, but the basic idea is the same:
The list could go on, but instead it’s best to reiterate what I said above: Life is a matter of priorities.
Having a writing passion, pulling all-nighters and neglecting everything in order to write as many words as possible every day, might make you a prolific author who sells a lot of books—though it’s overwhelmingly more likely that you’ll end up with just the negative consequences such as damaging your health and alienating those close to you.
Life is about priorities, and so is writing. I wouldn’t want to suggest some options should be espoused whereas others should be avoided—each author should make their own decisions, based on their own requirements. Writing a list of how you value spending your time might help you find your priorities.
However, it’s important to have an as–clear-as-possible image of what repercussions follow each set of actions. For instance, repeatedly ignoring a friend to stay in and write the next chapter of your novel is something that, in the long run, will affect the friendship, and it’s something you need to acknowledge to yourself. It’s alright to have different priorities, but it’s crucial to be aware of what these priorities entail.
For most people, a much more rewarding option would be to allow some latitude and kindness to themselves, enjoying life and experiencing the world, at the same time slowly improving their craft with patience and a relaxed outlook as key concepts. You can be both a serious writer and someone who enjoys life, so find your balance and your success.
Chris Angelis has a PhD in English literature from the University of Tampere. Besides his academic research in Gothic/horror & science fiction literature, he is also a writer of literary fiction, and the owner of a literature blog, Home For Fiction. Furthermore, he develops programs focusing on literature, writing, and texts in general. Chris is a senior content editor for Craft Your Content.