Passion: Maybe it’s not about waiting around for the fireworks – Barbara Taylor Sissel

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By Barbara Taylor Sissel

There is a lot of talk about the need for finding passion in your work these days. But what is passion exactly? Where does it come from? Are we born with it? I’ve always been impressed by the stories about little children, as young as two or three, who took up an instrument with the skill of a virtuoso, or who sang, painted or danced as if they’d had professional training. Ah, if only every life’s path could unfurl like that, a lovely ribbon, easily followed.♥

And while I can say I have a passion for my work, and a profound desire to do it, it didn’t come pre-packaged. It’s been more like a treasure I’ve had to unearth and sometimes the job can get pretty dirty. I’ve often been asked when it was that I knew I wanted to be a writer and my answer is always at around age eleven when I was reading Wuthering Heights. I had a sharp intuition about it. I’m not like other writers I know who acted on the intuition, though. The most I can say about the moment is that it’s seared into my memory.

My mom wrote — poetry, short stories, a children’s novel. The clacking of her typewriter keys drifted through the open windows summer mornings when my sister, brother and I were shooed out of the house to play so she could write. She submitted her stuff and had a bunch of rejection letters to show for it. It was out of disappointment that when I first announced in high school my intention to be a writer, she responded: “Great, you’ll be published before me.” On seeing the pain it would cause her if that happened, I didn’t pursue my goal except in a small way for myself. I kept a journal, wrote poetry on napkins. I made up stories in my head, but it wasn’t until a few years after my mother’s death, when my second-born son went off to kindergarten, that I let the old dream out of my mind’s closet again. I wouldn’t say, though, that I had a passion for it. A burning desire, maybe. But even that word doesn’t quite focus how I felt. It was as if there was something pushing me as woo-woo as that sounds. (It’s okay if I’m woo-woo. I’m a writer. It’s one of the perks!)

As far as passion goes, though, according to my understanding of the word, it’s been something I’ve had to cultivate, and sometimes the experience has been terrible. First, learning the basics of the craft, doing so much writing that was then tossed into the trash. And finally, when there was a manuscript deemed worthy of consideration by an agent and/or an editor, there was an enormous amount of rejection to slog through, and a lot of it was unkind, even brutal. I questioned my sanity. Who needs such abuse, right? But clearly I didn’t mind enough to quit. Is that passion? My brother calls it stubborn. Are the two related? I really don’t know the answer.

I love to write, and it’s a bone-deep love. But it feels quieter than the word passion might suggest. It feels more enduring and more constant like a banked fire. And here’s the thing … I feel that the love of it has grown with time, in the course of just me showing up, sitting in the chair, working even when I know that odds are much of what I wrote on any given day, I’ll toss out the next. That doesn’t sound much like passion. In fact it sounds like drudgery. Like cleaning house only to clean it again after the kids and the dog and whatever have run through it, tracking in a fresh batch of dirt. The fact is we love our homes, kids, and dogs, so we’re willing to go through this routine week after week. Is that passion?

It seems to me that passion is sustained through pursuit, through doing. Action in other words. Any creative endeavor, whether it’s writing, painting, parenting, running a business, gardening, or invention, may be born through a fiery crucible of emotion mixed with desire, but I think the gift of success, of satisfaction, the love for one’s work, is found in what’s left after that initial flush of energy fades — the much grittier, albeit less romantic, aggregate that combines persistence and discipline. People will say they haven’t found their passion, that no particular idea ever seized them by the throat and dragged them kicking and screaming down the road of you name the endeavor. But what if that’s not the way passion happens? Suppose at times it’s very quiet? Or what if it comes about but it gets told there’s no time, or that so and so said it was impossible — and you listened to that voice instead of the one that urged you to go for it?

What if you just did what you loved to do every day, even if you only have fifteen minutes to spare, even if there are parts of the work you have to do or learn that aren’t so great? Even if the voice in your ear keeps asking you: Who cares? Or: What difference does it make? And suppose the doing nurtured the love until it became so big it could no longer be ignored? In fact it became so huge it opened doors where as Joseph Campbell says there were only walls before?


Barbara Taylor Sissel was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and raised in various places across the Midwest. She is the author of The Last Innocent Hour, The Ninth Step, The Volunteer, Evidence of Life, and Safe Keeping. An avid gardener, Sissel has two sons and lives on a farm outside Austin, Texas. Crooked Little Lies is her sixth novel.

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