I didn't know whether to laugh or wince when I read a recent post by blogger/photographer Ruth Daly, titled "You might have a problem with photography if . . ." The post listed twenty signs that photography is taking over your life. I had to admit, quite a few items on the list applied to me.
Okay, nearly all applied, but particularly on-point were such signs as "You've lost track of how many times you've burnt breakfast/lunch/dinner because you 'just popped outside for a minute to take a photograph' " and "You realize your blog posts have gradually become heavier on photographs than writing."
Too true! And just when I was on the verge of doing another all-photo blog post. But as I considered Ruth's list and how easy it is to become consumed with an activity that once was just an occasional pastime, I started thinking more generally about passions. When and how does an interest become a passion? When does a passion become an obsession? How can we nurture our passions without going overboard?
I'm something of a serial passion-cultivator. In the course of my adult life, I've gotten all wrapped in an ever-shifting string of engrossments: alternative education, horticulture and botany, dance, insects, science writing, motorcycling, memoir writing, yoga and now photography. Each of these preoccupations started with a glimmer of interest that grew into a near-magnetic fascination with anything and everything related to the topic or activity.
Before we get into how interests evolve into passions, let's think for a minute about what, exactly, distinguishes an interest from a passion. LEGO enthusiast Paul B put this way on a LEGO forum (and by the way, did you even know there were LEGO forums?): An interest is "something you choose to do when you have a little spare time." A passion is "something that you consider fundamental to your life."
He went on to use this fishing analogy:
By that standard, writing is clearly a passion for me. There have been times when I've tried to do less of it, to make room for other things in my life, but writing feels so essential to my being, I have to keep coming back to it. A glance at the magazines stashed beneath my coffee table reveals that fully half of them are about writing; I belong to a writers' group; I blow my vacation budget traveling to writers' conferences; and I plan my days around my writing time. Yep, it's a passion.
It was the same with motorcycling. I devoured motorcycle magazines and books, belonged to a women's motorcycle club and rode as often as I possibly could. What's more, with both writing and motorcycling, as well as most of my other passions, I've experienced an intense desire to learn more and keep improving my skills. That, some people say, is what tips the balance from interest to passion.
Writing on the knowledge platform Quora, Justin Tan, founder of the I'd Hike That online community and apparel store, puts it this way: "The biggest difference between a passion and an interest is when you deliberately develop a mindset to improve . . . Having that mindset and desire, plus doing it every day is what separates a passion [from] an interest."
That mindset, however, can lead to a kind of tension that turns a relaxing hobby into a drive.
Photographer Danny Santos II wrote about this phenomenon on his blog, Shooting Strangers. "When I started photography out of interest, it was all hunky dory. I was a kid with a new toy discovering new possibilities. But pretty quickly, I've grown easily unimpressed with my own shots." His dissatisfaction led to an almost frantic desire to get better and better shots, which, in turn, led him to spend more and more time taking photographs.
A comment from a speaker at an alumni association meeting session on finding your passion summed up precisely what Santos had been feeling as his interest in photography shifted to something more intense: Passion exists when attraction is coupled with friction.
At its most positive, friction keeps the interest fresh. But sometimes, friction is a sign that passion has turned to obsession.
That's what happened to me with motorcycling. I loved it so much, I didn't want to do anything else. I found myself turning down invitations to really fun events that might cut into my riding time. I resented commitments I had to keep on days that were perfect for riding. I saw less of my non-riding friends. Other interests languished.
As much as I adored riding, I realized my obsession with it was creating discontent and diminishing my life. Eventually, I came to see that I could still enjoy riding if it was part of a suite of pleasurable activities, not the only one. The funny thing was, I probably rode just as much as before, but I found I could also be happy when I wasn't riding.
Now, when I find myself getting immersed in an activity, I try not to let it interfere with the rest of my life. Which brings me back to Ruth Daly's post on photography. After reading it, I asked myself, Do I have a "problem" with photography?
Not yet. Right now, it's a pleasant pastime. I pore over photography magazines and books; I practice almost daily, in an attempt to improve. But I'm not turning down invitations to make time for my passion.
I will admit, though, I'm really happy when those invitations take me somewhere I can bring my camera.
What are your passions? When did you know they were more than mere interests?
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.