Thursday, 16 May 2013

A Question of Passion

A little while back on Twitter, Ian Rankin was bemoaning the quality of his debut, Knots and Crosses. “There’s hardly a page that doesn’t make me cringe” he wrote. I did the same as 30 other people; I smiled, retweeted, and spent a few moments feeling better about my writing struggles. 

A few days later, in the way these things often do, I found a neat little connection between Rankin’s gripe and another piece I was reading; Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils and Rewards of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. (They discuss ‘art’ in general, but for the purposes of this post, I take it to mean writing.) In it, they are argue that one of the more painful experiences of a writer’s lot is the movement – gradual, dispiriting, repetitive… in short, pretty damn gloomy – from what they call naïve passion to informed passion.

This is the (significantly simplified) deal, according to these guys Bayles and Orland. Naïve passion is the hell-for-leather, carefree, up-and-at-‘em creativity of the  first-time storyteller. Stories explode from the pen; characters leap into life, plots are unfettered, diverse and ambitious. The whole process is fearless because the creator hasn’t assessed or analysed potential obstacles and so the outcomes, always breathless and energetic, can be by turn amazing or disastrous.  

But whichever way it turns out, you can’t keep hold of that naïve passion for ever. Once you’re done creating and the dust has settled, looking back from a critical distance you can often wonder how the hell you managed it at all. And so you move into another phase. “Naïve passion - which promotes work done in ignorance of obstacle…” write Bayles and Orland, “…becomes, with courage, informed passion, which promotes work done in full acceptance of those obstacles.” That, they argue, is the great leap forward the aspiring writer makes and, so they say, huge amounts of people stop creating during this period; they freeze up, curse their luck, cry writers’ block, in some cases put the pen or paintbrush down for good.

But gather round, people, gather round – for here’s the good news. One key conclusion is that novels get finished not by geniuses, but by those with enough dedication and bloody-mindedness to face down the daily challenges and doubts. Do that, and you move incrementally from naïve to informed.

Which is perhaps why Rankin can look back at his early work and wince; it’s the product of a different kind of passion, an earlier version of the passion he clearly still feels twenty-odd novels later. 

All I can hope right now is that I get even a quarter as far as he has, and one day have the chance to look back on The Poison Boy from some distant, marginally loftier position… and cringe.


  1. Brilliant! And so true. Can't say I see much to cringe about in The Poison Boy though. But, hey I'm naïve too :)