The Feeling of My Own Extreme Caring

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.

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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.

12 thoughts on “The Feeling of My Own Extreme Caring

  1. June says:

    I agree. Do you things your way. Do things in a way you can sustain. Otherwise you’ll crash and burn. Who’s comparing, anyway?

    (And as a slight aside, it was “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and not “The Joy of Cooking” that Julie Powell set out to conquer!)

  2. alison345 says:

    I like your conclusion, Catherine. It is easy to romaticise with hindsight and recall periods of being in the ‘zone’ as though that is the ONLY way it can and should be. I love the ‘in the zone’ feeling as a writer and I’m totally in tune with the words of Gloria Steinem: “Writing is the only thing that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” Problem is, when I’m not writing, I feel like I SHOULD be. In that way, whilst I love it, I also feel I miss out on other things – people, events, smelling the roses. I went to Rome last year and was so panic-stricken at being pulled away from my writing desk that I was ill and spent most of the break in a hotel bed. I think you’re right – in the long run, to sustain a writing life, balance wins out in the end!

  3. brmaycock says:

    I think there’s no better feeling then when you get consumed by something, probably the best example would be reading/ writing and blogging, and you come out at the end dazed and muzzy and realise you’ve put things aside (lets be honest, it’s generally family and friends), and you decide to tone down whatever you’ve been obsessed with and create more of a schedule and then you get the balance back. Now, inevitably it falls by the wayside for a while and you’re back to thinking that the book is all there is in the world, but that bit after, that’s the stuff! On another note, thanks so much for reminding me that Julia and Julia exists, I had it top of my list before I started reviewing and then it went to the wayside. Must sit down with it soon!

  4. Lindsay Edmunds says:

    Wise words. There are times when the sprint/the obsessed focus is needful, but not too many. Far more needful on a daily basis is the steady commitment, the simple refusal to turn back. And life matters. What kind of life is it, chained to the computer playing with words ALL the time?

  5. Licuc says:

    How beautiful, and how honest. Those raptures really are very sexy but in long term apply a toll on your life, so I understand completely what you say. Now let’s keep writing.

  6. Genealogy Jen says:

    As a passionate person who flits from one hyper focused project to another at the expense of everything, and everyone else, it’s exhausting to expend that much passion projects. It’s also not sustainable long term. I have creative, prolific bursts, but I long for consistent energy and endurance. (As well as more desire to do necessary tasks like laundry, making meals, and dishes. ) The grass might look greener, but it’s probably because the weeds have overtaken the grass and it just needs to be mowed.

  7. sultanabun says:

    This house, I think, will be my long project. Building a frame to hold my family, a backdrop against which to take photographs. Real, ordinary things count too.
    Nice post.

  8. Jazz says:

    The conclusion you came to is the same one I was forced to realize myself. When I was younger, I was completely consumed by my musical studies. It was gratifying, but it also led to my having to quit for a long time due to repetitive stress injury. I’d rather take things slower and still be able to play in my old age, which should be here any minute now!

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