I haven’t always been a writer. I wasn’t the kind of kid who scribbled stories or penned poems or daydreamed fantastical narratives in my head. I didn’t dream about “becoming a writer” someday.
When I went off to college I majored in English mainly because I loved to read and could craft a well-structured, articulate research paper. After I graduated I worked for more than a decade in both the corporate and the non-profit worlds, where I wrote annual reports and brochures, ad copy and marketing content, case statements and fundraising letters.
It wasn’t until I was in my late 30s that the process of excavating my spiritual and religious background ultimately led me to write my first book – and then three more books after that.
What I am realizing now, more than a year after publishing my last book and nearly a year since I stepped out of the publishing arena, is that I have always written to produce a particular outcome. In my corporate and non-profit jobs, I wrote to produce marketing and fundraising content. And as an author, I wrote for the purpose of publishing books. I even began blogging in 2009, long before I had an agent or a book contract, solely to build a platform for what I hoped would be my first published book.
I enjoyed the work. Writing was invigorating and satisfying, and I was passionate about it. I believed it was my calling. But what I am beginning to understand now is that there is a difference between pure passion – engaging in your passion because you love it and because you can’t imagine not doing it and because it’s woven into who you are as a person – and passion driven by extrinsic rewards.
Psychologist Robert Vallerand calls these two types of passion “harmonious passion” and “obsessive passion.” And the difference between the two comes from how they are internalized in one’s identity.
According to Vallerand:
“Harmonious passion (HP) results from an autonomous internalization of the activity into the person’s identity. An autonomous internalization occurs when individuals have freely accepted the activity as important for them without any contingencies attached to it. Individuals are not compelled to do the activity but rather they freely choose to do so. With this type of passion, the activity occupies a significant but not overpowering space in the person’s identity and is in harmony with other aspects of the person’s life.” (my bold)
Obsessive passion (OP), on the other hand, “results from a controlled internalization of the activity into one’s identity. Such an internalization originates from intrapersonal and/or interpersonal pressure either because certain contingencies are attached to the activity such as feelings of social acceptance or self-esteem, or because the sense of excitement derived from activity engagement becomes uncontrollable. Thus, although individuals like the activity, they feel compelled to engage in it because of these internal contingencies that come to control them.” (my bold)
Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire summarize Vallerand’s hypothesis in their book Wired to Create, concluding this:
“Obsessive passion is an indicator that the activity has not been healthily integrated into a person’s overall sense of self. The ego feeds on high performance, and the person may find herself pushing too hard with little improvement, sometimes leading to mental and physical injury. In a nutshell: harmoniously passionate people are impelled to create, whereas obsessively passionate people are compelled to create by more extrinsic factors.”
In other words, it all comes down to how a person internalizes their passion. Does their passion become part of them because they love it and they would pursue it no matter what the outcome? Or does their passion become part of them because they have connected it to their sense of value and self-worth?
Oh boy. Lightbulb moment: I fall into the obsessive passion camp.
Obviously there are many authors who are both impelled and compelled to write. In other words, they are successful and probably at least somewhat motivated by extrinsic factors (books sales, best seller lists, etc.), but they also receive deep joy and satisfaction from the creative process. Their scale probably tips generously toward harmonious passion.
My problem, it turns out, is that my scale tips heavily toward obsessive passion – always has. Yes, when I was writing books I desired to share stories that I hoped could help or at least resonate with others. Yes, I enjoy writing. But let’s cut straight to the chase: I was largely in it for the external rewards (publication, status, recognition, approval). And that, combined with the inevitable depletion that came from publishing four books in five years, thousands of blog posts and an infinite number of social media posts, led to a creative and professional breakdown of sorts (and perhaps a wee bit of a personal breakdown).
Which brings me to today. After a professional lifetime of writing for extrinsic reward, I am now learning how to write simply for the joy of it. As silly as it sounds, I am slowly teaching myself how to have harmonious passion for writing. I am learning how to pursue my passion without any contingencies attached to it.
I do believe harmonious passion can be learned, especially if a seed of it is there (however deeply buried it may be). And I know the seed of harmonious passion for writing is in me because of how I’ve often felt these past few months when I am writing. Whole hours slip by unnoticed when I am at my desk, fingers on the keyboard. I am relishing language – reveling in the simple but deeply fulfilling hunt for the perfect word or a gratifying turn of phrase. I am dipping my little toe into writing poetry, just because. And while I know journaling is, for me, a fruitful way to nurture self-awareness and growth, I also appreciate that writing in a public space helps me improve my craft and grow as a writer…which is why I am still writing here, rather than solely in the pages of my private journal.
That said, it’s not easy to break a lifelong habit. Writing for outcomes and extrinsic rewards is my default mode; it’s automatic. Which means every time I catch myself thinking about platform or “felt need” or whether a particular post will resonate with my audience, I have to gently redirect myself back to the reasons I write these days, which are all rather basic:
Because I like working with words.
Because it helps me figure out who I am and what I think about things.
Because it’s challenging but also (mostly) fun.
I haven’t ruled out the possibility of writing another book someday, though I can’t imagine doing so anytime soon. I do know this though: if I do step down the book-writing road again, the book I write will come from a deep place of harmonious passion in me.
What about you? Have you ever struggled with obsessive passion?