Vessel of Passion: Lisa See

“It takes a long time to come to a place where you can say that the art—the act of creating—is more important than your own fear.”

My guest today, author Lisa See, believes that passion is the single most important thing for writers and other types of artists. I happen to have an unusual passion for the dictionary so I decided to remind myself what passion really means and how this might relate to creativity.

After teasing out the references to Christ (which some might say play a role in creativity as well), I found quite a few thought provoking definitions.


1) any powerful or compelling emotion or feeling, as love or hate.

2) strong amorous feeling or desire; love; ardor.

3) strong sexual desire; lust.

4) a person toward whom one feels strong love or sexual desire.

5) an instance or experience of strong love or sexual desire.

6) a strong or extravagant fondness, enthusiasm, or desire for anything.

7) the object of such a fondness or desire.

8) an outburst of strong emotion or feeling.

9) violent anger.

10) the state of being acted upon or affected by something external, esp. something alien to one’s nature or one’s customary behavior.

11) the sufferings of a martyr.

Of course, it’s not surprising that almost all of these definitions have to do with sex and emotions such as desire, love, and anger. You’ve got your outbursts, violence, and suffering to the point of martyrdom. Toss in a little tingling tension brought about by all things alien and non-customary behaviors, and you’ve identified just about everything that makes art (writing, painting, music, etc.) great.

And according to Lisa, all this needs to squeeze into a fragile vessel made up of 98% water?

No wonder it’s tough. No wonder so many give up or experience exciting pseudo-passion in artistic one night stands. It’s not so stressful to enjoy a bite here and there only to walk away when it’s convenient.

Have you ever been in wild, passionate love that you know–beyond a shadow of a doubt–could last forever? I hope so. It’s often described as intensely beautiful and painful all at once. That’s exactly what it’s like to have the creative passion Lisa talks about. On one hand, you’re desperate to be free of it–to shake it off-so you can just relax. But on the other hand, you’re so titillated and obsessed that all the misery becomes worth one single moment of satisfaction.

When you experience that kind of ongoing, intense desire/love for someone, just being the same room can be enough. Sometimes just a touch of their hand or a smile does it for you–makes all the misery worthwhile, that is. But of course you want more!

And so you go for it!

If for some reason you don’t, or you fall short of your goal, you never forget. No matter what you do, where you go, or who else you love, you carry those emotions with you. In some fantastical way that person crawled beneath your skin and settled there, making themselves a piece of who you are.

The good news is that when this level of passion exists for an art form, it’s never going to walk away. Instead it waits, staring back at you. It’s there for the taking.

Who wouldn’t want to be in crazy, painful love 24/7? Maybe only those who can’t say no. Maybe those who have no choice.

Maybe people like me.

I often wonder if most highly creative people are born knowing what they want to do. Have you always wanted to be a writer, or was it a specific creative interest that evolved over time?

I didn’t want to be a writer. My mom’s a writer and my mother’s father was a writer. I wanted to do something different. But then I became a writer! I feel like I’ve been in a lifelong apprenticeship. I learned a lot about writing from my mother that most people take years and years to learn or may never learn. Writing was literally in my blood. I always say it was a good thing they weren’t plumbers.

Do you have other creative interests, and if so, what are they?

I love music, and I wrote the libretto for an opera. I love art and museums and have now curated three exhibitions. I love beautiful gardens and right now we’re replanting much of ours. Some people might say these things are “off purpose.” I completely disagree.

Opera is about telling a story through the pure emotion of music; I try to tell my stories through the emotions found in words.

An exhibition is about telling a story purely in a visual way; I do that with my writing.

Gardens are about beauty, stillness, and calm; I aim for that in my writing too.

I think it’s true to say that if you’re creative in one area that you’re often creative in many areas. That’s because artists see the world differently.

There is a stereotype that creative people are “different,” which can be a positive or a negative at times. What are your thoughts on this?

Is that a stereotype or just true? Artists can be moody and self-absorbed. On the positive side, artists often do see the world differently. In the creative moment, they are exuberant and alive with creativity. They can bring things out – about history, society, politics, love, life — that have been lurking just under the surface. Artists are also willing to cut to the bone to get to the truth of things. This isn’t easy or fun, which is why more people aren’t artists.

Do you believe being creative has caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life’s aberrations, or both?

To all three variations of that question, I guess so.

Have you had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you’ve dealt with it?

I’m very lucky that I grew up in a family of artists. My mother and grandfather on that side of the family were writers. My father’s side of the family had a lot of fine artists and artistic souls. (I think it would have been hard to be in my family if you weren’t artistic in some way.) My husband’s mother is a writer, so he grew up with a writer, which I’ve found to be a very good thing. It’s safe to say that in my family there’s been not just tolerance for artists but a deep understanding of an artist’s moodiness and the joy of creative energy. I realize I’m making artists sound like we’re bi-polar. We aren’t! (I hope we aren’t.)

I often wonder, “Am I truly creative or do I just think I am?” Have you ever wondered about this? In a world filled with creative people and people who think they’re creative, how have you been able to distinguish yourself and your talent, despite any doubts along the way?

I wake up with doubts and I go to sleep with doubts. I thought that was part of the definition of an artist.

Unfortunately, many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. How did (or do) you cope with disappointments? What motivated you to keep going, to not give up?

Let’s not kid ourselves. Disappointments are breathtaking in their ability to paralyze us or cause us to question ourselves. I don’t think I cope with disappointments very well at all. I mope. I question. I get depressed and angry. I’m human.

But then, after a while, I remember why I’m doing this. I think the single most important thing for writers and other artists is passion. We have to have passion. That’s what sustains us through what we can euphemistically call those “bumps in the road.” You have to have passion to decide to write a book. You have to have passion to edit a book. You have to have passion to go out on the road and promote it – sometimes for a week or so, sometimes for years. I’m still invited to talk about On Gold Mountain, and that book came out fifteen years ago. So I’d better be passionate about it.

I look at this passion kind of like I look at the difference between marriage and a one-night stand. Are you in it for the long haul – through thick and thin, illness and in health, and all that stuff? Or is this something you’re doing for momentary pleasure so that when the going gets rough, you’re out of there? When you’re in it for the long haul, you’re always motivated.

I often wonder about the similarities and differences creative people have in terms of though processes. How would you describe your creative process? How does your mind work?

Geez, I wish I knew how my mind worked. I have a very active imagination. I don’t dream all that much, and I think that’s because I’m in a kind of dreamlike state all the time. Sometimes my husband will ask me what I’m doing and I’m literally staring at a wall. I’m just traveling somewhere in my mind.

What are the top three characteristics of a highly creative person, in your opinion?

Dreaminess, emotionalism, and obsession.

Many creative people have tons of ideas but never follow through. I’m not sure if it’s because they lack drive, organization, or focus. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?

I don’t know either, but the one thing you didn’t list is FEAR. I bet a lot of what you’re labeling as lack of drive, organization, or focus goes back to fear. The fear of failure. The fear of exposing yourself. The fear of criticism. I’ve had those fears and I think every artist has those fears. It takes a long time to come to a place where you can say that the art—the act of creating—is more important than your own fear.

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