“Placing Too Much Importance on Passion”

January 25th, 2012 by

In two recent interviews I did with Academy Award winning screenwriters, I was struck by the fact both of them said one of the most critical factors in writing a good story is for the writer to be passionate about the project. Then today I read this from writer and teacher Jane Friedman:

Recently, I ran across this quote:

Passion is the quickest to develop, and the quickest to fade. Intimacy develops more slowly, and commitment more gradually still.

—Robert Sternberg

I’ve taught hundreds of students with passion. I teach few students with commitment to do the best work possible.

Passion or not passion, that is the question!

As soon as I read this far in the column, I figured what the issue was: How we define the word. Friedman offers this:

I think part of the problem is how we define passion, so allow me to introduce Herdegen’s definition:

Passion is a deep connection to an idea, a strong bond which creates a feeling of desire. It contains elements of both commitment and excitement but is not limited to them.

Passion plus commitment is not too common in my experience.

While I agree there is some value in consciously joining the two — passion + commitment — in my book, if a writer is really passionate about a story, the commitment will be there.

It’s like Joseph Campbell’s articulation about the theme of The Hero’s Journey: “Follow your bliss.” If we identify that about and for which we are passionate, deeply and existentially, doesn’t it mean our commitment will follow?

What do you think? Is passion necessary to write a great story? Is passion without commitment meaningless? Does true passion translate into commitment naturally?

And how about this: How do you go about finding what your bliss is?

13 thoughts on ““Placing Too Much Importance on Passion”

  1. Debbie Moon says:

    Excellent questions. I’m seriously considering giving up on a first draft script because I don’t feel anything for it – in fact, I’m working on anything *but* that…

    You have to be passionate to be committed, maybe. And passion is more than just an emotion. Passion keeps you writing even in the twentieth draft, because deep down you still have a connection to your story, even if it’s not the big emotional rush you had writing those first pages.

    Maybe it’s like a marriage: you don’t always feel what you felt on your honeymoon, but your relationship is still real.

  2. Becca Barnes says:

    Hmm, I think you kind find passion within a project you’re not particularly excited about, but that’s where the commitment bit comes in.

    However, I only discovered this because I’m actually getting paid to write something – had I not been under contract to do this, I would have dropped it long ago because I disliked the core of it. Luckily, after some work, I’ve rediscovered why I liked it in the first place and am redeveloping passion.

    Makes me think it might be time to go back to some other dropped projects and see if I can do the same thing :)

  3. Becca Barnes says:

    *can not kind.

    Gah, need more coffee.

  4. To me, passion is about re-writing, not just writing.

    I don’t know how many times I’ve come across people who only want to produce a few drafts of a script then move onto something else. The script isn’t done until the film has been released… unless you’re George Lucas.

    But in all seriousness, I’ve been asked to read stuff and given some notes only to have the writer say “that’s a good idea, but too much work to change”. Whether they agree with me or not isn’t the point. What is the point is if you’re passionate enough to spend the time writing it down, you’ve got to be even more passionate to get it right.

    Can’t even begin to tell you how many years and drafts I’ve spent on my first few scripts, partly because I believed in them and partly because I didn’t believe it to be in my best interest to go off and write something new while potentially repeating the same mistakes.

    So I wrote the @#%! out of them until they started winning awards, and I don’t feel like I’m every truly done as there’s always something to learn and apply to them – but I have moved on to actually writing other stories, scripts where the first draft is a HELL of a lot closer to reaching the finish line.

    Lord knows, this endeavor is a marathon, not a sprint. :)

  5. CrashDaily says:

    Passion is awesome. It should definitely be the driving force of your original work. But if you want to be a professional and make a living as a screenwriter…commitment and the ability to execute trumps passion every time.
    Passion is a luxury. Totally subjective, like “love.” It would be great if we could decide what we are going to be passionate about or what or who we are going to love. But it doesn’t work like that.
    Someone reads a sample and wants to hire you to rewrite project X. Are you going to turn that down because you’re not feeling particularly passionate about it? Unless you are independently wealthy, the answer is hell no.
    I have a wife and three kids. That’s where my passion is. So when I get my quote to work on a project, and I can keep my family’s health insurance and the bills paid for another few months…my passion for the project is irrelevant. My commitment to executing an excellent draft is everything.
    If I happen to fall in love with it…great.

  6. Alex says:

    I believe passion is THE key to doing great work, and this teacher, or whoever she is, is absolutely ridiculous for claiming otherwise. I think she has a misunderstanding of passion (thanks for the definition) and doesn’t know how to apply that to her students, but that’s a whole other issue I needn’t get into…

    In regards to what you’re saying here, you’re dead on – passion is incredibly important, and exactly as you said “if a writer is really passionate about a story, the commitment will be there.” One reason I think Green Lantern turned out pretty bad is because I am certain Martin Campbell (the director) had absolutely no passion for the characters/comics/mythology. I’m sure he grew to like it and appreciate the mythology and story, but I just can’t imagine Campbell had any real passion for it, and it really shows in the final product, unfortunately.

    Passion is truly integral to doing great work and anyone who says otherwise is probably lacking some of that passion themselves. But to be honest, it’s a constant struggle to find that passion and keep it burning strong, because there is so much fighting against it, and so much that makes you feel like all that passion is going to waste. But don’t let that change you or defer you, that just means you need to work harder to find your true passion(s) and figure out how to keep them alive. That’s what I believe.

  7. tracinell says:

    Thank you for this post, Scott.

    I’ve mentioned before the cringe reaction I get whenever I hear the screenwriting mantra “only write your passion.”

    For me, it feels like only half of a great mantra. Passion fades during a bad day (week) of writing, making it really easy to rationalize, “I guess this wasn’t my passion, time to quit.”

    Passion for the story and willingness to rekindle Passion + Commitment to creating quality = Following Your Bliss.

  8. How can there be any interest unless there is passion? We have to invest an awful lot of time in anything we write so it can’t be a casual relationship. I’ve written scripts with passion and I have written them with skill. The skill based ones are terrible. The passion fueled ones have opened all the doors for me. The catch is once a passion project opens the doors you’re suddenly offered a platter full of dull projects to work on. It gets complicated right then and there and…goodbye passion (for me)

  9. Scott says:

    I think what we’re seeing here in the cross-section of responses — all excellent by the way — is that interplay of aspiration and inspiration. And I’m not sure there is a right answer that stands for every possible project that comes your way, original or not.

    For example, one of my favorite filmmakers is John Sayles. Check out his earliest screenwriting credits: His first one is the 1978 movie Piranha. Then a few years later, Alligator. Do I imagine Sayles was passionate about writing those stories? No. But I do know he was passionate about writing those projects. Why? Because he used that money to finance him developing movies about which he was truly passionate like Return of Secaucus Seven.

    When you are a working screenwriter, unless you are A-list or you have high ideals, a fat bank account and don’t care much about how much heat you are generating in Hwood at any given moment, you will confront this issue over and over and over again: The difference between passion projects, stories you want to write, and projects about which you must generate some passion, stories you need to write. The latter are those you take on for a variety of reasons, everything from working with a producer in the hopes of landing another project they control you really want to write to doing a favor for a studio who needs help on a story to, of course, you need the money.

    So while I think we should all search our souls for stories that we absolutely want to write, true passion projects, which we can do on spec any damn time we choose, as professional writers we need to learn how to take on the other kind of project, and once we do search our souls once again to find where we can find some kind of emotional connection for it.

    The reality is if you want to work in Hollywood, true passion projects only come around once in a blue moon, and the competition on those is fierce. If that prospect doesn’t appeal to you…

    You can always choose to be a novelist.

  10. TripDreamer says:

    I think of it as passion for the process, the craft, and the industry – not for a particular project. I think that’s what John Sayles had and it’s what fuels most filmmakers. Otherwise I wouldn’t be breaking my skull trying to get into a field that is so insanely challenging to get into and sustain a career with. I would go become a teacher or a lawyer or a dentist.

  11. Nick West says:

    I like this question, and the replies.

    To define passion is to try and define what makes us human.

    Good luck.

    Isn’t that why we create art? to explore humanity? The transcendent?

    Is passion purely from our impulses, or does it also involve integrity and dedication to craft?

    Anyhow, I’ll agree with Becca, in that, I got paid for something that wasn’t exactly my cup of tea. However, as an artist, I put in the motherfucking work, and ended up being proud of the finished product.

    Also, the whole family thing. That sure as hell motivates me. It gives me PASSION, intimacy, whatever…

    Love and live life. Write.

  12. Jenna Avery says:

    I’ve been contemplating this question myself lately. For me, part of the challenge is that in the life coaching world (of which I am a part), “finding your passion” has become such a Thing that people struggle to discover for years, despite the formulaic exercises and explorations coaches will offer you to solve it. It has lost meaning for me.

    In a recent exploration with an online writing circle I run, I found myself talking with a fierceness I didn’t know I had about writing. It surprised me. THIS is passion for me.

    It matches what TripDreamer said above: “I think of it as passion for the process, the craft, and the industry – not for a particular project.”

    For me, the passion is about the act of writing. I wrote a bit about it here:

    What happens when we lose our passion for something? Can we? I’ve come to believe that if we are involved in our passion on a daily basis, it only grows stronger. Sure, we’ll hit bumps, blocks and obstacles along the way, but I think we have to be careful not to confuse those challenges with a loss of passion.

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