On Passion, Detachment and Creativity

To be successful, should we find and follow our passion, or is doing so terrible advice?

I was reminded of this debate when reading Cal Newport’s recent blog post on how comedian “Louis C. K. Was Bad Before He Was Good.” While I always enjoy Cal’s blog, what I was most struck by were the comments, such as these:

  • “The role of passion in my mind, is NOT that it makes you pre-disposed to be good, but rather that it helps you make yourself choose to spend “another hour” practicing because you are excited about the potential outcome” ~ Chris
  • I “have no doubt that Louis CK enjoyed the process of working hard. What he had a passion for wasn’t comedy — it was learning new skills, getting better at stuff.” ~ Michael

Is passion the problem? Is grit the answer? Discipline? Persistence? Researcher and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would say that doing creative work is not a matter of choosing one way of thinking and acting to the exclusion of others. Instead, creativity requires the ability to choose from among seemingly discordant paths and strategies—such as passion or detachment—for whatever is needed at the moment or for a particular stage of the creative process:

“Most creative persons are very passionate about their work, yet they can be extremely objective about it as well. The energy generated by this conflict between attachment and detachment has been mentioned by many as being an important part of their work. Without the passion, we soon lose interest in a difficult task. Yet, without being objective about it, our work is not very good and lacks credibility. So the creative process tends to be a yin-yang alternation between these two extremes.” ~ Creativity, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, HarperPerennial, 1997, p. 72

Public domain image

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (public domain image)

Ursula K. Le Guin on Submission and Rejection: It Never Stops

Ursula K Le Guin

“The artist deals in what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.” ~ Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness (1976)

Continuing the theme of AWP 2014 highlights, the final session I attended was “A Reading and Conversation with Molly Gloss and Ursula K Le Guin.” The two women have been friends for over thirty years, since Gloss was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of student in Le Guin’s writing workshops.

Both authors were charming, forthright, and informative, and the audience was treated to several candid, memorable lines and moments. For example, when asked if they went on writers’ retreats in their early careers, Le Guin replied that “retreat” sounds too much as though a battle had been lost.

The session ended with their reading from unpublished works, in Le Guin’s case, a short story she is shopping around that had recently been rejected, reminding the audience that even for someone with five Hugo Awards and as many Nebula Awards, the process never stops.

See Also

Read Ursula K. Le Guin’s Paris Review interview.

ReadProof that Molly Gloss Deserves To Be One of Your Favorite Authors.”

Missed AWP this year? No worries. Watch an even more extended conversation Le Guin had last year at UC Berkeley (go to the 4:45 mark if you want to skip the introduction):

Danez Smith’s “Dinosaurs in the Hood”


One of the joys of the AWP conference is the unexpected session, the one that we find not because we circled it in our program schedule the night before in our hotel room but because we were in the right place at the right time, standing outside an open door, waiting for something else when the siren song of a poem or a story or a conversation pulls us into the room.

One of those moments for me was hearing Danez Smith perform his poem “Dinosaurs in the Hood.” His intensity and the rhythm of his words took over the packed room so that we were lifted by his energy to stand and applaud almost before he had delivered the final line.

I tried to describe the poem and the experience of hearing it to my husband, but my own words failed me. The best I can do is to share this video of Smith’s performing “Dinosaurs in the Hood” in February at a San Francisco poetry slam (read the poem here).


Not Your Grandmother’s University Press


The book fair consumed most of my first day at AWP 2014, but I do want to write briefly about one very worthwhile session from Friday morning: “Fiction, Memoir, and the University Press.” Moderator Alden Jones and panelists Ladette Randolph, Douglas Bauer, and Raphael Kadushin discussed their experiences as authors and editors at university presses, specifically the University of Iowa Press, the University of Nebraska Press, and the University of Wisconsin Press.


Photo by Lezan (CC BY 2.0)

In recent years, many university presses have ventured more strongly and deliberately into the trade publishing arena, to the point where, according to Kadushin, the University of Wisconsin Press, for example, now publishes as many trade books as scholarly titles. If you have noticed that the overall production quality of university press books is higher than or at least different from what it used to be—more attractive titles, more modern typeface design, more images and color—that is one reason: university presses now seek to reach a wider audience.

As Bauer explained, the good news for writers is that what commercial publishing houses have abandoned—poetry, essays, and literary fiction—university presses have gladly claimed, providing both readers and authors a new space to connect.

Writers should be aware of how the experience of publishing with a university press may be different from publishing with a commercial or even a small, independent press. The acquisitions and editorial schedules are longer. There is almost always a review process that requires manuscripts to be recommended by one or more outside, peer reviewers before the press will issue a contract. University presses also tend to keep books in print longer and develop a strong working relationship with their authors.

Douglas Bauer, who was happy with his previous commercial publishing experience, discussed how the University of Iowa Press was a “lifeline” for his most recent non-fiction book, What Happens Next? Matters of Life and Death (watch the trailer, below), a work he described as “unruly.” “A lot of really good stuff is going to university and independent publishers,” he said. Kadushin added that the fact that university presses have to worry about breaking even rather than making a profit is “a gift” to writers.

Learn more at the Association of American University Presses, where you can visit websites of individual presses, read their submission guidelines, and connect with them on social media.

Do you have a favorite university press?

Waking up to the life around us

As I continue to share my great aunt Hattie’s diaries, every so often an entry stays with me, and today is one of those days:

1934 Feb. 25 Sunday

Was only 6 above near noon and some snow fell and in p.m. rose to 9 above and sun set bright. Fritz helped chore, gave the cattle a load of hay off the east end of the big stack, then he went to Lattimore’s, via the store on his saddle horse and back before dark. Will chored then Wm Whiting came and after we had dinner, we played rummy and pitch. Wm went on to Boyd’s, he came from Ed’s on his saddle horse and led Boyd’s horse. Maggie got meals and the necessary work and swept floors. I played solitaire and read stories and my cold and throat is better. Noble Moore Jr went by to store on horse-back. [emphases added]

Feb. 25, 1934

Paying Attention

This is just another day’s entry in many ways, but notice the detail with which she describes feeding the cattle off the east end of the big stack. It’s not just that Hattie paid an extraordinary level of attention to what she saw, which she did. She also had to have spent deliberate energy asking and learning what her family and neighbors did each day. You see, the previous Memorial Day weekend she broke her leg in a fall, and nine months later she still cannot walk well and most certainly would not have been feeding cattle with Fritz, a neighbor who was doing work for them.

Feb. 11, 1934: I played solitaire, said my prayers, for mass was at 8:30 a.m. and I no go on account of my bum leg but I hope to walk soon so I can get there.

She had fewer of her own activities to record these months, but she made sure to find ways to stay active in her world, to pay attention even when she could not be physically present to do so.

Being Present to History

Another interesting aspect of the February 25, 1934 entry is the frequency with which she mentions horse travel. This was not just a way to fill the page. The previous January she wrote about how, during these Depression years (and perhaps in part because of South Dakota’s “Cowboy Governor“), “horse traveling is coming back”:

1933 Jan. 3rd Tuesday

Bright, nice day. Yesterday was S.W. breeze and to-day N.W. but not too windy to put hay in barn for Will & Roy put 5 loads hay and one of oats not threshed. Wm looked at traps, took stock to field and got same in eve and worked at hog shed in garden. I got meals, baked a walnut-cocoa cake, started to make apple-jell but no thick. John Sloss of Crazy Hole here to see if he could get Red Cross Flour, he came horse-back and it is all of 10 miles or more down there, so horse traveling is coming back this winter for Berry is now our Governor. I cooked dried-corn and pork bones for dinner also made some sauce this day. I feel bum so rested in p.m. and gathered cobs in eve. The stock enjoy feeding in the field but are beginning to destroy oats in stack so must haul it in. [Note: This diary entry also played a role in the Flash Narrative “Horse Traveling Is Coming Back.”]

Below is a U.S. National Archives photo by Lewis Hine from the same era (November 11, 1933), showing “Gaines McGlothin, R. F. D. #2, Kingsport, Tennessee, with his two mules. McGlothin has two cows and sells milk and butter. He also raises hogs and chickens and cattle for beef.” Notice the haystacks in the background.


Waking Up

Just as Monet saw the significance and beauty in painting a haystack over and over and over again, Hattie never tired of attending to the details of daily life.

800px-Claude_Monet_-_Haystacks-_Snow_Effect_-_Google_Art_ProjectOr, if she did tire of it, she pushed on, understanding at some level the importance of, in the words of the late novelist David Foster Wallace, of staying “alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.” In his now famous 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech, Wallace spoke of how hard it can be simply to get out of ourselves and to turn away from our default self-centeredness, if only for a few moments:

“[E]verything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.”

You can read the full speech transcript and listen to Wallace deliver the speech in its entirety (why I am not sharing the wildly popular video adaptation, which you can still find easily on your own).

Keeping a journal or diary might be thought of as solipsistic or, even worse, narcissistic, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be an exercise in waking up to the world around us.