I have always been jealous of people with a demonstrable, consuming passion, especially when it results in an incredible, sustained effort to start and finish a creative project.
As regular readers know, thanks to the whole Distress Signals editing and launch festivities, I ended the academic year down three essays and had to do them over the summer. One of them was about the Lisle Letters, a collection of 3,000 pieces of correspondence generated by a dynastic Tudor family during the reign of Henry VIII. To the untrained eye, they look to be written in hieroglyphics – and did I mention there are 3,000 of them? The historian Muriel St. Clare Byrne took it upon herself to translate them, edit them and put them together in six volumes with her own commentary, a collection published in 1981 on Byrne’s 86th birthday. It had taken her almost 50 years to complete the project. Fifty years of work with no guarantee of publication. Imagine the dedication that required.
A few years back I went to a talk in Waterstones Cork given by John Boyne and Claire Kilroy. At it, Boyne talked about the feverish creation of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. He said it was something he had to start right away and that once he had, he couldn’t stop. The story flowed. It flowed so much that he wrote continuously from Tuesday to Friday, punching out 50,000 words, only stopping when his friends insisted that he step away from the desk for a night on the town – because Friday was his birthday.
It doesn’t have to be books. During a recent and particularly shameful bout of procrastination, I discovered that early seasons of The Hills were on my On Demand TV menu. In one episode, a superstar intern from Teen Vogue in New York comes to Los Angeles and instantly removes any doubt about whether the MTV girls are working there for real or not. I wondered where this superstar intern was now, because surely she was editor of her own magazine or something. When I looked her up, I found an interview where she talked about launching her own website/blog while still holding down a day job. This involved getting up at 4:00am every morning and working until she had to leave for work at eight. Every. Single. Morning. Jonathan Safran Foer also spent a period of time getting up at 4:00am ‘savouring both the solitude, and the feeling of my own extreme caring‘.
It doesn’t even have to be real. There’s something about the movie Julie and Julia (which, while based on a true story, probably isn’t exactly true to life) that stirs a motivation in me. I just love how Julie is feeling a bit blah about everything until she decides that she’ll cook everything – all 500+ recipes – in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the next 365 days, and blog about it. This commitment, this passion project, takes over her life. Meanwhile, in 1950s Paris, Julia Child is revelling in her newly discovered passions of food and cooking.
I’m jealous of these people, and unnerved by them. Should I feel like this about my work? When I’m writing a book, should I feel like they do, ignoring everything else besides? In one of my favourite movies, Adaptation, Meryl Streep (playing author Susan Orlean in a screenplay by Charlie Kaufman) considers that the reason people are passionate about things is because ‘it whittles the world down to a more manageable size’. How wonderful that would be – to not even think about cleaning your house or Netflix or in fact anything at all except writing and finishing your book. Because at times that’s all I can seem to think about.
There have been times in my life when I had felt that drive to finish something, when I really did ignore everything else – food, time, TV – because I was so consumed by what I was doing. Making a scrapbook when I returned from my eighteen months in Florida. When I decided to start a handmade card company and worked to put together a catalogue. Self-publishing Mousetrapped and everything that came with it.
And it’s looking back on these times that I realise I’m romanticising this kind of passionate, creative rapture and that the way I work – over a long period of time, with breaks for Netflix, around my normal life – is, while not as exciting, the only way forward. Because these raptures aren’t sustainable. Everything would fall apart if I ignored everything but my writing. And I want to sustain. I want to be able do this for as long as I possibly can.
I’m passionate about that. And I think that’s enough.