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Leonieke Baerwaldt’s thoughts on passion

During the first plenary meeting of this academic year, author Leonieke Baerwaldt gave an inspiring talk about passion, which was also the theme of this introductory meeting and the subsequent activities. As you can read in the text of her talk below, according to Leonieke, passion has its benefits but also its pitfalls. She has experienced both in her career as a writer of, among other works, her recent book ‘Hier komen wij vandaan’.

Dear students of the Humanities Honours Programme,

In the allegory of the Chariot, Plato portrays the human soul or psyche as a chariot being pulled by two winged horses (one dark and one white) led by a charioteer. The general interpretation of this allegory is that the charioteer represents our reason, the dark horse our appetites and the white horse represents our spiritedness or lifeforce. Each of these three elements have their own motivations and desires. Reason seeks truth and knowledge, the appetites seek food, drink, sex and material wealth and spiritedness seeks glory, honour and recognition. There are, of course, other interpretations of this tripartite nature of human behaviour. But I lean towards this one when I think about the subject we are thinking about today. Passion. There are two ways of working passion into this allegory. We can see passion as the white horse because it can seem like a lifeforce that you have to protect against the capricious behaviour of your earthly appetites. But I feel the need to point out to you that passion can also be seen as the dark horse, it needs management from reason and has to stay aligned with the more noble seeking’s of spiritedness, otherwise it can be very destructive.

The job of Reason is to discern the best aims to pursue and then train the horses to work together towards those aims. As the charioteer you must know where you are going and you must understand the nature of your desires when you wish to properly harness their energies. This, by the way, is not easy. In my grown-up experiences I have driven my chariot against the wall many times and had to pick up the pieces. It is the knowing where you are going part that you have to keep in mind. Don’t let yourself be distracted too much by your desires, it is not only what they want that can lead you off your path, but it is also their reaction to disappointment. This goes for both the black and the white horse. If you don’t get food, drink, sex, or material gain from your travels, you will be frustrated, angry, deprived. And If you don’t find glory, recognition and honour in your endeavours, it is sometimes dreadful to keep on going, especially if you are working really hard for them. Keep in mind: once you know where you are going, the route towards it will be paved with obstacles, setbacks, surprises and disappointment.

Maybe this division of the psyche in three parts might seem simplistic, seen from the perspective of a postmodern discourse, but it helps me to think about my own passions and passion in general as part of a manageable system that you can learn to understand instead of as a leading principle that is beyond your own control. Because when we talk about passion we tend to talk about it as something that seems to steer us. And most of the time it feels that way.

When I think of my ever-present longing to write fiction I immediately also think about all the disappointment I encountered trying to bring that wish into practice. Because when you are passionate and ambitious you often fail. Or at least a few times, even when you are an honour student. And if you don’t use reason to put that failure into perspective, you and your passion will get out of sync.

There is still the idea that you cannot become a writer, you are a writer and that when you are a good writer, you’re some sort of genius that channels some sort of divine content into these beautiful sentences. Well, let me tell you. Writing is hard work. Most of the time I am certain that what I am making is total bullshit. Especially in fiction, it is hard to judge if what you are creating has some intrinsic value in the end. Sometimes I do have this feeling of the divine when writing, and I never feel better than when I feel like I am a writer. But there are so many times that there is just nothing, no creative juices flowing at all and there many times I am in doubt and asking myself: Am I a writer? Or do I just want to be one and at what costs? The only thing that keeps me going most of the day is steering my chariot into this vague direction, trying not to let my disappointment get the better of me. Super depressing. I know. But real.

Creating something is a process. And when you are a humanities student you are going to have to be able to create your own path. Because there are no prefab jobs waiting for you out there in the real world. You are going to have to make a place for yourselves. And there will be nobody guiding you once you are graduated. I am telling you that creating is all about the process. About the work you put in and the dynamics inside and outside yourself that you can learn to understand. The down sides are part of that process too.

In my mind writing and reading are two sides of the same coin. And I have been passionate about them since I was very young. Even when I could not write and read yet, I was fascinated by the idea that there are whole worlds behind these signs on a page. As a toddler I tried to deconstruct those signs but failed miserably off course. So I pretended I knew how to read a book that I took from my parents bookshelves and made up my own story and laughed out loud about it. And someone asked me, ion amazement, if I could already read and I told this person I could and then I started to tell my made-up story. I got mocked, just a little. I also wrote pages full of curly ‘letters’ and stapled them together as a book. All of these ‘books’ ended up in the garbage. Both these anecdotes are stories of failure in one way and of success in another. It was already then and there that I started to learn that I can think something in existence that wasn’t there before. To me, that is magic. It is the kind of magic that I research and work with every day now. And it is that playful can-do attitude that facilitates the imagination that I need when I am writing something.

Failure and disappointment are part of a larger process which I always try to keep in mind when working on my prose. When you feel failure, you feel your passion the most. Many times I failed at writing something descent. I did not find my voice, my style, my themes for a long time. I felt often like a fraud when I was studying Philosophy and Literature and when I followed writing classes. I thought everybody had more gravitas, more good reasons for what they were doing than I. And still everyday writing for me is a huge struggle fuelled by passion but extinguished also by self-doubt. I have had to learn how to ignore questions like: why is what I am writing about more important than every other thing I could be writing about? And ‘who am I to write about this particular subject?’ These are really good questions to ask yourselves off course and as a humanities student you learn how to ask them. What am I in relation to what and whom? But as a writer I have to suspend these questions, at least for some time because I am building up worlds from scratch.

It only started to work out for me when I accepted the fact that there is never going to be a point where I would make something perfect or important or relevant. I published stories and I have written a novel, but none of those feel like final products of my writing. They are mere stills of where I was when they got published. The best I could do at that time. It started to work out when I found the right combination between seriousness and playfulness. For me the larger process entails making sand and then start building sandcastles. And it is in that process I can put failure and disappointment in a certain perspective. My sandcastles are not permanent things, they can be trampled upon, they can be washed away by the waves. But they are also a product of play, I have no problems breaking down my own sentences and paragraphs and chapters and reworking them into a different thing, experimenting with the effects I can create. And here for me is where the fun starts. The end product, to finalize your work, still stresses me out. But I see it now as taking a picture of my work before I leave it behind and go somewhere else and make some other sand for a different castle. This way, failure is (a little) less scary.

It was only when I started to rework my words endlessly that it became something fruitful. Learn to understand your own process and take it seriously. And don’t let yourselves be distracted by things that seem to matter but don’t. By failure, by disappointment, by the world that constantly makes you feel like a fraud, like you have less worth than others. Writing, but maybe this goes for every passionate ambition, takes or maybe ‘is’ in itself a form of concentration. Of empathy. Of understanding the world in a different way.

Here I want to mention the legendary lecture that David Foster Wallace held to the graduating class in Kenyon’s college in 2005. It is called This is water and you can look it up on the internet. Life after you graduate, he says, is full of boredom, routine and petty frustration. Day after day, month after month, year after year. And Wallace is right. I am sorry. And he gives a horrifying illustration of how day to day life can look like when you are a full-blown adult. But he also gives an antidote. He points out that we can look at things from our, what he calls ‘default perspective’, where we are automatically sure that we know what reality is and who and what is important. But his solution is that we can also try to think about the endless possibilities that could be. None of them are likely but they are also not impossible, according to Wallace. In this way, you allow your frustrations to become something different, because you can construct a different narrative around them. The person that just sent you a rude rejection email might not be a dick that hates your work, he might just have had a bad day, his daughter is sick and he has to work from home, his mother just died, anything different from what you might initially think when you get that rude rejection. And this gives you the space to answer his email in another way that you initially would have done, which might lead to a situation in which you can apply again next time for the thing you just got rejected for. This kind of playful empathy enables a different experience in daily life. But it is also, for me, the truest part of being a writer. It is this playful empathy that provides, for me, the necessary escapism that I find of existential importance. Because I have no other scapegoat. I don’t believe in truths that are larger than life. But that doesn’t mean I don’t believe in meaning and that meaning can’t be constructed out of everything I encounter during these short and random moments of existence. As a writer, I stretch it out as far as I can. This is at the basis of my passion, ever since I was a toddler, and it is this playful empathy that I hope never to lose. Wallace says: learn how to pay attention. He also says: be aware, practice discipline and channel your passion.

When you are passionate, and smart, and ambitious, you tell yourself that you simply cannot fail at what you are doing. And even when you don’t tell yourself that because someone told you once in a lecture that failure is part of a larger process that you can learn to understand and control and ride like a charioteer you still inherently operate by that dogma. Because you are part of a society, of a system that operates by that dogma. Failure is for losers, the stories you see around you are stories of success. And it is very confusing why everybody you know is succeeding at life while you keep on failing.

I have failed so many times. I have also been rejected. There are periods where no one from the outside world is asking for me. I have felt worthless, uncertain and paralyzed at times. There are whole years in my life where I hardly wrote a sentence, where I felt like I wasn’t a writer because I wasn’t published and I felt deeply ashamed of my passions and ambitions in this world that is crumbling down around us, this fractured society. Who was I to want to say something about all of that? I still feel that way very often and that is when I have to remind myself that this is what it is to be a writer. Failing is the thing I hate doing the most, but it is also the thing that has given me a broader understanding of my process and therefore it is part of the process. I am never more certain of my passion than in these darkest moments.

Wallace says in his lecture that as a humanities student you don’t have to learn how to think but rather you have to learn what to think about. So; what I want to leave behind here tonight with this group of young, beautiful and ambitious honour students, is this idea of the charioteer: you being in control of your ambitions by understanding your passions. Get to know your process. Find your subject, find your theme. Learn how to pay attention, be aware, practice discipline and at the same time stay playful. And if, or actually I mean when, you ride your chariot against a wall, don’t give up. Pick up the pieces and start rebuilding.

Thank you all for listening.