How to rekindle the passion for your creative pursuits

Passion is worthless. Joy is priceless.

The last several weeks I’ve been staying in a castle. At night, I’d scramble up the steep ruins, my path lit only by the moon and the stars. Below I can see the thick pine tree hills and the warm glow of the cabin down the hill. I’d sit for hours, ruminating on my life and my future.

A few weeks ago I was on a podcast interview with Joe Bunting that shook me. I couldn’t put it into words at the time, but I felt something shift. I think Joe was asking me something about what I enjoyed doing – back when I was a kid and creating things was still fun. I realized I hadn’t thought about it in awhile. I don’t believe in “follow your passion” because I’ve seen it lead to too many frustrated artists and writers.

I was choosing to do the smart things, the things I thought I should do, like scale my business, but I’ve been resisting it most of this year – procrastinating and spinning into a cycle of guilt and anxiety. Why couldn’t I just do the things I wanted to do?

Because I didn’t REALLY want them. They didn’t spark joy. They didn’t pull me forward.

Years ago, in Malta, I was having trouble choosing an essential oil and a woman told me to close my eyes and hold out my hands. She placed one bottle in my hands, then the other, and asked how I felt. She didn’t prompt any particular response, but I felt clearly that one bottle was pulling me forward, and the other was pushing me back.

My grandfather taught me dowsing when I was younger, with a coathanger or a branch. When you’re within contact with what you seek, it will push back. There’s a recognition. But you must know what you’re looking for, and you must be open enough to feel when things are lining up.

At the castle I was talking with another writer, and we discussed how writing books is kind of the same thing. It takes a unique kind of mindfulness, to recognize the challenges, then await the answers. It’s a repetitive project, since a book is a series of difficult problem solving tasks. The advantage is you know how it ends, and where the characters are going.

If I’m honest with myself, I haven’t felt that way for awhile. I had big plans, that I knew what would work, but I didn’t actively participate. I was a disgruntled employee (and my own boss). I wanted to do the work, to get those things I wanted – the problem was I didn’t enjoy THAT work.

One of the biggest realization I had this week, is actually not a new revelation. It’s something I read years and years ago that stuck with me. I’ve had it on my blog since the beginning. But it’s never hit home quite the same way before.

“There is nothing you must do, and nothing you must have, and nothing you must be. Still it helps to understand that fire burns, and when it rains the earth gets wet.”

I used to take it to mean, all things being equal, learn enough skills to understand the laws of the world you inhabit. I was the magician, the pioneer, forging into new territory with brave, rash, unearned confidence (like the Fool card of the Tarot). It’s a young man’s game. With age comes a more “accurate” estimation of one’s own potential. One of the writers this week brought a Tarot deck and late at night I’d draw my own cards, which were usually something like a reversed star or ace of swords, which I took to mean my own fears or anxieties getting in my own way, not taking action, not taking risks.

But that’s not right at all. It’s not that I lack courage. I have no fear of success.
Instead, it’s the little kid in me who cannot be bribed with good money to go out and do lawnwork or chores, because he would rather escape into fantasy worlds for free (I would literally hide around the house until someone yelled at me to get back to work). I do what I enjoy – I always have… that is, until recently.

I haven’t figured everything out for myself yet, but I did have this one big insight I’d like to share (and I feel really, really stupid for saying it, because it does mostly boil down to some version of “follow your passion”.) I prefer the phrase, “choose your bliss.”

This sounds really hippie (I am from Oregon after all) but we are only energy. We use our energy to create value. The more value we put out into the world with our energy, the more it comes back to us in the form of various rewards. So it’s not enough to have energy, or be inspired. You have to focus it in a direction of something useful, with intrinsic benefits and value that other people covet.

But it can’t ONLY be that. Because the creative spark is profoundly selfish (or at least mine is). It will use its time to do what it wants and nothing else. If you force it into mundane, boring work it’s not excited about, it will resist. He’ll still show up, he’ll do the work, but every step he’ll be kicking and screaming (read: watching Netflix and binging quarts of icecream).

I used to think I could bribe my muse by bringing treats: buying fancy writing gear or decadent pastries. Cigarettes and espresso. This way leads to excess. The solution is not to bribe your muse – the solution is to find him a sandbox and let him play.

Tonight I’m learning Daz software; it’s a 3D rendering software I needed to learn because I felt like I was being left behind by newer cover designers. I’ve stumbled around it all year, frequently asking for help or outsourcing the work. Wasting days not knowing what I was doing. Tonight, thanks to the patience of one of the castle guests, I finally felt like I’d figured it out and made my first render. Creating an image and letting it see you; recognizing that flash of brilliance inside that you created. The astonishment on both sides.

I haven’t felt that way since I learned oil painting 20 years ago; the eve before I departed for Malta for three years to study art history and philosophy. Next week I’ll be back on the Mediterranean island for the first time since college. In some ways I feel like I’m completing a circle; checking in with my former self, reconnecting with the young man who used to drive his red toyota out to the caves and beaches.

The point: your muse might be like the three cats who live in the castle. They won’t let you pet them, and the first time you give them food they’ll run off. But keep feeding them and they’ll sleep outside your door. They can’t be tamed or forced, they can only be fed.

Pay attention to your joy, not your desire. Feed your bliss.

If you want to learn a new skill, don’t force yourself to do the things you don’t want to do; learning is hard enough already. Work on something FUN. For me, it’s been trying to render this stupid holiday themed elf costume properly so I can make a North Pole Academy book cover. I don’t NEED to do it, but I WANT to, so I stubbornly sat through the hours of frustrating agony until I could finally get the program to do what I wanted.

We will always avoid what we don’t know how to do, especially when other people are watching. Learn the skills while having fun on a project you’re passionate about. Use your skills to provide value. Rather than focusing on energizing things, be very careful to label and avoid anything that subdues your energy. The right project will pull you forward, the wrong one will push you back.

CLICK HERE to listen to Joe’s podcast, on The Write Practice. We talk a lot about the craft of writing, on a deeper level. Picture us as two gentleman around a fire with a bottle of cognac and a decade of frustrated ambitions finally bearing fruit.

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book editor turned book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors write and publish bestselling books. FREE GUIDE: Sell your work without selling out.