When I set out to write a children's novel seven years ago at the age of 40, I didn't know a thing about the craft. I'd kept journals in my youth and written more than my fair share of thank you notes and emails and logs of vacations to help recall details, but my desire to create something of substance finally inspired me to become a writer and discover the passion I'd buried for years. If you've ever wondered, "How do I find my passion?" here's my advice on finding it and keeping it strong.
False Start #1
Less than a year out of college, I (at 23) married my husband (then 22). Looking back, we were such babies -- and yes, I robbed the cradle.
During our first few months of dating, I learned how much he loved sailing. I remember the first time we sailed together on a small, inland lake. He said I was a natural. I'd never been sailing like this before. Maybe I was meant to be a sailor? It was a sign! I convinced myself that my hobby -- my passion -- was sailing, a belief I held for the first 17 years of our marriage.
But it was during our first year of our marriage that I also experienced my first episode of depression.
It was 1992, when few people spoke openly about mental health and medication. Anti-depressants were oddities and whispers, not the openly advertised revenue-generators they've become today. I felt ashamed that I wasn't always a happy, content, optimistic young wife, and that something inside often felt hollow and lost. I'd look to my husband, trying his best to understand me, and wonder why I couldn't shake these overwhelming feelings of sadness. I asked myself why he'd even married me. I felt inadequate. Confused.
Why did this cloud hang over me? When might it appear again?
I'd pour my heart into my journal to cheer myself up and fortify my self-confidence. It always helped to process what bothered me in this way, because time again, watching the words appear on the page seemed to sooth my feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. The familiarity of each letter and the control I wielded -- even with a pen -- helped to calm my nerves and gain perspective. I didn't understand how or why, but it worked nearly every time.
Feeling ready to have a baby before my husband only added to my feelings of sadness. He'd changed careers and started grad school, so he wanted to fortify our savings before starting a family. Totally reasonable (and wise). Yet the pages from my journal reveal how utterly empty I felt. Plus, I was in a miserable job and felt completely inadequate. In one entry, I included details from my latest performance evaluation (not stellar) and told myself that I just had to try harder, stay more focused, get in earlier, stay later. Things will click, I counseled myself. You're still figuring it out. You're only 25 years old. You're a good person and you know it. But as my work drained my emotional strength and my episodes of sadness became more frequent, I sought more sessions with a therapist -- and put someone else in charge of documenting my sadness. As much as the therapy helped, I regret that I stopped writing altogether.
In its place, I looked to sailing with my husband for comfort and reassurance. I wasn't a lifelong sailor like him, but it was something we both enjoyed doing together. From purchasing our first small boat to spending Sundays, rain or shine, on a tiny lake every summer, sailing was our constant. It provided structure, context, and frequently a subject to focus on besides my moods. I'd hear the woes of my peers who were golf widows (or abandoned by their workaholic partners) and think I'm lucky to share this passion with my spouse. Our time on the water felt a lot like church: a sacred, often silent, togetherness on Sundays.
Then, as the arrival of three babies in five years kept me anchored closer to shore, I missed my husband and our time together -- yet I increasingly declined opportunities to join him on the boat. The kids need me, I rationalized, even though grandparents constantly offered to help us out. Returning from Sunday afternoon races, my husband would be flushed and full of stories, but I somehow didn't miss the action; I really only missed him. As the sun went down, we'd pass the kids back and forth and I came to see that sailing really wasn't my passion, rather my way to be with my husband. I wasn't a true sailor, just a sailor-by-marriage. My true passion, I told myself, was nurturing these three little ones that I'd been waiting for my entire life. I'd never before felt as adequate or needed, so I threw myself into my "new" passion: motherhood.
False Start #2
But ask any mom and you will learn: you can't make your entire life about your kids (or anyone, for that matter). Otherwise, you'll lose yourself. And I did.
Sure, I took the occasional weekend away and found sitters who provided healthy breaks, but for too many years I wandered through my days, wondering what -- besides mothering and teaching kids -- I was truly passionate about.
When I'd hear my husband talk about how, on cold winter nights, he'd fall asleep thinking about summer sails and harrowing jibes and broad reaches, I'd feel an emptiness. What did I fall asleep dreaming about? At times it might have been an upcoming vacation, but usually it was grocery lists, classroom art activities and endless to-do lists, including all the things to pack and coordinate before that upcoming vacation.
When I'd place my husband's monthly magazines on his bedside table, like Sailing World, SAIL, Sailing and Wooden Boat, I'd look at my own haphazard pile, Real Simple, People, Vanity Fair, and The Enquirer, wondering what they revealed about me besides a desire to get more organized and a pathetic fascination with celebrity.
When I'd wrap Christmas ornaments for my husband -- sailboats and seagulls and anchors and lighthouses -- I'd wonder what ornaments he and the kids might select for me, especially when I no longer recognized who "me" even was.
Nothing To Lose...Except A Salary
And so, facing my 40th birthday and the realization I'd soon have all three kids in school, I listened to the echoes of a mysterious void deep inside my soul. With the support and encouragement of my husband (by then an attorney), I went for broke, literally: I requested a year's sabbatical from my teaching job and dove in head first to my long-lost passion: writing.
It was the only thing I knew how to do easily besides mothering and teaching. It was the only thing I could think of that made me feel consistently good about myself. It was the only activity I'd always gone back to, over and over and over again, during good times and bad times and rough times and the rest.
Maybe I just need to write about my feelings of losing myself, I thought. Maybe I should write about depression and that it's worth talking about. Maybe once I do these things, I'll discover my true passion. I hadn't yet realized that writing IS my passion.
How To Claim Your Passion
Only once I began writing did I allow my passion to reveal itself. What does that look like? I'd already come to know the joy and relief writing brought to my life, but what I hadn't yet done was to fight for it, find its possibilities and foresee your future:
1. Protection Of Time
You've got to fight for it, and I'm not talking about boxing gloves or bickering. I'm talking about rearranging my time, my activities and my thoughts around making time for my writing. I'm talking about giving up something I would have loved doing, like going to a concert, sleeping in, or having lunch with a friend, and putting writing first. With writing as my anchor, I now had a structure and a focus I'd been lacking -- and it ultimately helped me to make the most of all the other activities I wanted to do. Lunches with friends still happen, and they include even deeper conversations than before. I'll still make time to sleep in, oftentimes as a reward for an especially productive writing weekend. And my concert attendance hasn't altogether ceased -- it's just perhaps more selective to allow enough time for friends, family and, naturally, writing. Protecting time to devote to your passion builds even more respect and desire for it.
2. Perspectives Are Endless
When I first set out to write, I thought I'd start with a children's book because books for kids just have to be easier to get published than adult books, right? Not only was I wrong, but the education I gained learning why that isn't so was astonishing. I hadn't appreciated how big the children's publishing world was, or how many success stories and failures it held, or how many opportunities there were to reach young readers. At first overwhelmed by how much I had to learn about publishing, I quickly found a tribe of likeminded people figuring it all out. Some of those people were newbies like me, and some had hundreds of published titles to their names. What we all shared was a thirst to grow as writers. Some, like me, were learning from scratch. Others, who'd been around for years, sought inspiration and new methods to reach readers. Some hoped to switch genres, while others explored new ways to share their talents (spoken word, podcasting, blogging). The more time I spent writing, the more opportunities I discovered and the more interesting people I'd meet.
3. Picture Yourself As You Want To Be
When I first began writing, I kept apologizing to myself and others.
"I'm new." "I've only been doing this a short time." "I didn't go to journalism school." "I don't have a lot of experience." "I don't have an agent." "I'll never has as many published books/followers/comments/good reviews as that writer." "I'm just a mom."
And that didn't get me anywhere.
What kicked things off was putting myself out there, as inexperienced and scared as I was (and believe me, I was terrified). Who'd want to read anything I had to say?
I stopped trying to picture that faceless, critical mass of judgement and, instead, imagined writing to a supportive, caring friend. I created a free Wordpress blog and wrote about what I was doing. I was no expert, but I knew I wanted to be a writer. The post was liberating and removed a ton of self-imposed pressure to produce something -- anything.
There. Now I had something to share. Now I had something that officially proved that I was a writer. Well, sort of.
Granted, it was just my own blog. Granted, my confidence was still low, but that first step was behind me, and it gave me the boost I needed to take the second step, the third, and so on. I've lost count which step I'm on now, but that's okay. Having ANY number in the "done" column, even if it's just ONE, is more motivating than having ZERO.
And the best part is, all these little steps are adding up.
To be sure, I've had no map, and my steps often meander. I don't always follow a straight (or easy) path, and several steps have led me to utterly and sometimes devastating dead ends. But, since I started writing in 2009, I've accomplished more than I ever imagined as a writer, like launching a blog, creating a website, becoming a weekly columnist, performing live lit, launching a podcast series, interviewing the President of the United States, attending writing conferences in Illinois, New York, Iowa and Pennsylvania and starting my own business running a writers' retreat. I've been paid for my writing on topics ranging from community tragedies, politics, motherhood, race, education, business, marriage and the arts.
And I've also failed spectacularly. I've received some nasty, hurtful comments from readers, received numerous rejection letters from editors and publishers, had columns I loved rejected after working on them for months, and written about topics I wish I hadn't. And have I mentioned that I'm starting my children's novel over -- from scratch?
While it might be easy to dwell in all my failures and my struggles and just convince myself I'll never go anywhere as a writer, I will not quit because this is my passion. I'm confident there's more in store for me. I've got so much more to learn about writing (and about myself), and the fact I look forward to what's to come is proof I'm doing what I'm meant to do.
All those heartaches and false starts before I discovered my true passion? I think they all happened for a reason -- and contribute to who I am as a writer. For example, I can now identify with and describe the painful yearning of someone aching for a child, or the surreal, prison-like awareness living with depression without tools to escape. I can write about the unbearable weight that disappears upon leaving a miserable job, and that once-in-a-lifetime, out-of-nowhere, brilliant puff of wind that edges your bow first across the starting line.
There's no formula for finding and keeping your passion, so if you're overwhelmed, let go of everything you think you know. What is it that boosts your comfort and confidence? Please share your journey in the comments section, because you just might inspire someone to find their passion, too.
Christine Wolf is a freelance columnist for the Chicago Tribune Media Group's Pioneer Press. As a community activist, Christine creates platforms allowing others to share their voices. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband, their three children and two very vocal dogs.
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