What are you willing to sacrifice for your writing?


With AmyG in Indiana, just about this time last year. No writing got done that day.


This is one of those questions I get all the damn time often.  What are you willing to sacrifice to get the work done?

This past week I visited the home of Eugene O’Neill.  O’Neill was, by all standards, an accomplished, brilliant, and original artist.  A leader in his field.  Winner of 4 Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize.  A success.  And yet, he sacrificed much personally in service to his art.  When we were touring his home, the curator explained how that the dining room was purposefully small because this wasn’t a house for entertaining.  The guest room had it’s own entrance so guests — including his visiting children — could come and go without disturbing him.  Mr. O’Neill had distant relationships with his sons, Eugene Jr. and Shane, both of whom committed suicide as adults.  He disowned his only daughter, Oona, when she married Charlie Chaplin at age 18, and he never spoke to her again.  O’Neill isolated himself completely in order to write.  He sacrificed.

Visiting Eugene O’Neill’s home this week brought up the question again.  I don’t know what, if anything, I’m really willing to sacrifice.  My children?  My husband?  My friendships?  My health?  This morning I had coffee with my husband, made pancakes and eggs for breakfast, and then walked the dogs, rode my bike, and spent my entire morning outside.  It’s 70 and sunny here.  There’s a cool breeze blowing through the trees.  Damned if I was going to hole up, on a Sunday no less, and spend the day at my desk “going inward.”  My writing can wait until tomorrow.

What does this mean?

almost daily sometimes wonder if I have the temperament or pedigree to be a writer.  There are those standard things you hear about writers, and I know I don’t fit.  I haven’t, for instance, dreamed of being a writer all my life.  I’m not a recluse.  I haven’t abandoned my children or my family for my “art.”  I don’t take any meds beyond a boatload of vitamins.  I spend time with, and keep up with, friends.  I’m not an alcoholic or drug addict.  Hell, I don’t even smoke.  I loved my mother.  I enjoy a number of frivolous, non-artistic things, like sports and serial TV shows and bad movies and exercise.  I’m generally cheerful, happy even.  I’m always, always, on time.  I love rules, find comfort in rules, and would, in fact, consider myself an inveterate rule follower.  What respectable artist follows rules??

I could go on, but you get the point.  There’s not a thing on that list that screams “Writer.”

And yet.

And yet, I write.

Do you ever wonder if you’re sacrificing enough, if you have what it takes?

35 thoughts on “Sacrifice

  1. schietree

    When this question comes up – it seems writers often ask themselves, do I count? – I always think of J.G. Ballard, the widower, hugging his children on the sofa, smiling away. He wrote piles of books. He lived life, it seems.

    Perhaps degrees of isolation are necessary. For some people, perhaps not. Maybe Eugene O’Neill needed that silence to write. Or perhaps he used writing as the excuse to stop people getting close to him.

    1. Teri Post author

      What a great image — JG Ballard, NOT sulking alone in a dark corner, but still writing away. Lovely…..

  2. Josephine

    i believe that writers, like any other tribe, come in all sorts. the only reason we hear so many stories about the crazy ones, the drug addled ones, the ones who hate their mothers or love their fathers (a little too much) are because those experiences make just as good stories–sometimes better stories–than whatever those writers wrote.

    you don’t hear much background on the calm, non-addict, well-balanced writer who has a supportive circle of family and friends because a 750-word piece on how they spent their day doesn’t offer much in the way of voyeuristic-reading. but they exist just the same.

    in fact, i’m going to go out on a limb here and say they’re probably in the majority. of all the writers that ever got published—knowing what it takes to get published–the safer bet is that the calm, well-adjusted, slow and steady crowd beats out the coked-up, abused and not loved enough crowd more days than not.

    yes, pain can make for great storytelling. but, surviving the pain and then evolving into a place where we can find normalcy, stick to schedules, and act like a decent human being can make for great, steadfast-ness. the pain creates an opportunity for the work, but it’s the healthy outlook that gets the work done.

    and, knowing what i know about assholes, do you think that writing was the cause of eugene sacrificing his familial relationships? i think it wasn’t so much the cause but the venue. if it hadn’t been writing, he would have found whatever else to avoid what he was avoiding.

    (dear lord, what a rant that was…sorry.)

    1. Teri Post author

      But oh how I love a good rant…. I don’t know that writing caused him to sacrifice his relationships, but there’s certainly a narcissistic thing there, right?

      There’s certainly a need to be alone and/or not distracted while I’m working. But when I look up at the end of the day, I’m wondering, “Hey, where is everybody!!??” 🙂

  3. CJ

    George Sand to Flaubert from Flaubert-Sand, The Correspondence, translated by Francis Steengmuller, page 249

    “I pity humanity and wish to be good because I don’t want to set myself apart from it; because it is me; because the harm it inflicts on itself wounds me; because its shame makes me blush; because its crimes turn my stomach; and because I can’t conceive of a paradise, either heaven or on earth, for myself alone. You, who are goodness yourself, must understand what I am saying.”

    1. Teri Post author

      I’m certainly not perfect, but it often seems I’m not quite miserable enough to get the job done. Yet I’m as guilty as anyone of being intrigued by the suffering artiste. I could have stayed at O’Neill’s house all day, and will go back soon.

      1. CJ

        I love the letters between Flaubert and Sand because in them they talked to one another for decades about their involvement with life as well as books. And they both wrote many.

        To me there are all kinds of writers and all kinds of writing–from poetry to journalism. Every subject is worthy, and every writer worthy of their subject.

  4. erikamarks

    Teri, I have so often thought about this…when I was a professional illustrator, I always made the distinction that I was an “illustrator” and not an “artist” because in my mind, the latter implied a lifestyle, as opposed to a product. I am a bit more torn about the classification boundaries of “writer.” Writing and stories consume me and are a passion, there’s no question–but I am proud and grateful for my marriage, for my family, for living a mostly grounded life. Does that make us less writers for having stability? I don’t think so.

    I think often of Olivier’s (supposed) comment to Dustin Hoffman (who supposedly practiced method acting) during the filming of Marathon Man: “You should try acting; it’s much easier.”

    1. Teri Post author

      Sometimes the reason I don’t tell people that I write, or that I’m a writer, is for this very reason. I don’t want to be seen as artistic in any way. I don’t, in fact, consider what I do “art.” I consider it work — and work that’s no better, no different, than work someone else might be passionate about.

      There is nothing wrong with stability. I know for a fact that, if I didn’t have the stability I currently have, I wouldn’t have the energy for writing. Maybe it’s different for women than for men?? Or men of a certain time period??

      1. erikamarks

        Now isn’t that the irony? I wholly agree with you–it is the stability that I would argue makes me a stronger writer–and yet, the “model” of the writer is so often the other end of the spectrum–that extreme personal disorder somehow spawns great art.

        And I would absolutely say it is different for women than men. Let’s be honest; in a certain time period, men had the luxury of mental and emotional chaos because their wives maintained order in the family…

  5. lisahgolden

    I don’t think I’ve got what it takes. Turns out, I write when I want. I can’t isolate myself, can’t sacrifice all the things I must do/ want to do because the inner guilt conversation happening in my head would prevent me from writing in the long run. I’m slowly accepting the idea that writing for me is a hobby and nothing more.

    1. Teri Post author

      As I’ve often said, Lisa, I read you like I read the news. It’s a first thing in the morning kind of thing, before the day starts. You’ve got something there.

      But I also know what you mean. For women especially, I wonder if it’s a timing-thing. We want to be so many things to so many people — sometimes I wonder when I’m supposed to take a shower, much less write.

      I was thinking today that what I do have is a curious mind, and I think in story form. I’m guessing you might do some of the same: you hear 3 things and then your mind starts stringing them together with personal perception and commentary. Like your great essay about the Joan Didion book, a clear view of connecting some pretty great dots.

      1. lisahgolden

        Thank you, Teri. You’re right about how I process things and turn them into commentary, relating them to something personal and (hopefully) humorous.

      2. Teri Post author

        Your Joan Didion piece is the best thing I’ve read all week. I loved the framing of it, with the blue nights. Just beautiful.

  6. Sarah W

    Do I wonder? Only all the time. And maybe the answer is, not yet. But I don’t think I’m willing to make the sacrifices Mr. O’Neill did—but then again, no one has asked me to, and I’m not sure anyone asked him . . . perhaps to him, it wasn’t a sacrifice at all?

    1. Teri Post author

      To Josephine’s point above, was he a narcissist and man-who-would-abandon-his-family already, without the writing? I’m guessing maybe.

      Even though I never gave birth to babies, I always wonder about anyone in the species who walks away from a child. Sometimes when I hear that I think my mind turns off off off.

  7. Three Kings Books

    I am thirty years into being a writer, so I guess I have some perspective. I married, raised children, read widely and deeply, walked the dog ALL THE FUCKING TIME and even attended a lot of parties. I also listened to music, almost obsessively.

    When the kids were tiny, I got up early, and I wrote.

    That sums it up, seems to me.

    You be yourself. But…sometimes…embrace your OTHER SELF, your WRITER SELF. It does take some discipline. It just does.

    1. Teri Post author

      “All the fucking time” … ha!!! You are right. I have the other self, the introspective self who sits down and works. But it’s so not interesting, right? I’m sure my neighbors do wonder why my lights are on at odd times in the night …… I’m just writing. Not very dramatic.

  8. macdougalstreetbaby

    You are proof positive that there are no rules. You write because you do. Period.

  9. Lyra

    You know, I’m with you 100% wondering if I’ve got what it takes, if I want it enough. But that isn’t the whole truth, is it? We have families and responsibilities. It is a luxury to be able to center your entire life around writing. But we do something more. We do what we have to do, and take the writing time where we can get it. Sometimes life gets in the way, and I get it that some people don’t let that happen, but the older I get the less I want to know those people.
    Sometimes we write, and sometimes we’re a mom, a wife, a career woman, a veterinarian, a travel agent, a nagger of in-laws to go to the doctor, a tax accountant, a school volunteer…need I go on?
    This week in the prospect of doing something new, I had to immerse myself in clothes shopping, I believe a circle in The Inferno, yes? In order to do that everything else got pushed to the side. We live in an over-scheduled world and we try to be good friends, good stewards of the gifts we have been given from our friends to our kids to our spouses to our families.
    At the end of it all, I’d rather someone remembered that I was as loyal a friend that exists, a mom who yelled too much but had her children’s back regardless, a person who tried her damnedest to prop people up instead of tear them down. I’d want that as my legacy and maybe that’s my problem. To me, that is so much more important than any book I’ve ever read.
    I say that, and you know that I read the way I breathe.
    Despite it all, we choose to take the precious few moments and construct hundreds of pages of narrative, tearing ourselves up in the process only to be rebuilt, us and the books stronger, smarter, better. Hell, the fact that we do this for no true reward other than the process itself proves we’re every bit as much a writer as someone who holes up, allows their families to fend for themselves, all for the purpose of “art”. We do it all, freak out, break down, and then stand up to do it again.
    If we aren’t writers, I don’t know what I’d call us other than mental.

    1. Teri Post author

      Jack Of Many Trades -R- Us. I can’t imagine checking out completely —- what would I write about then??

      I remember thinking this about William Styron, that he completely checked out of his life to write his masterpieces. I’m so very thankful for his work, but I can’t imagine being in the personal wake of his needs to do that work.

  10. Averil Dean

    Well, O’Neill just sounds like kind of a dick, actually.

    I do think that like everything else, life goes in cycles. When my kids were little, I stayed home with them for years, then worked for years, then stayed home again with my youngest, then worked, then worked at home as a photographer, etc, etc. I always made a point to be with them as much as possible when they were younger.

    But now they’re off doing their own thing for the most part. If I weren’t writing, I’d be maybe sitting in the living room or whatever, watching TV or reading. My writing time is usually late at night or early in the morning, which is pretty much down time for the crew anyway, so I don’t really feel like I’m depriving anyone too much. We’re all pretty independent these days, and my youngest is daddy’s boy, so I fulfill a different role with him. He’s my buddy, I’m like a father to him!

    Still, writing is admittedly a selfish endeavor. After all, I did leave my family for a week, more than once, during the past year. I’m not sorry about it. My family knows I love them, that they’re important to me, that other things are important too. I tell them often that nothing matters more than they do. Which is true. If there were a choice to be made, I’d choose them.

    Luckily, with a little craftiness (and fairly narrow fields of interest) it’s possible to write and have a life at the same time.

  11. Downith

    Do you ever wonder if you have what it takes?

    All. The. Time.

    (I’m putting those periods in even though someone at Betsy’s said they hate when people do that. That’s my defiant moment for today.)

  12. Catherine

    I agree with Averil, there are cycles of life. Years when it makes sense to write, years when you can only give your time to others and understand that this is a blessing. The idea of sacrifice, of pain, to be a successful, real writer – I dislike these definitions, I would rather have my kids healthy and happy around me and be an old dotty grannie like Grace Paley, who was the best.

  13. girl in the hat

    I don’t know much about him but it seems like O’Neill didn’t feel it was a sacrifice. He was just more interested in the writing than he was the other things, so he cut them out. Most women I know feel pulled in different directions. Most women I know put themselves at the bottom of the to-do list, me included. But I’m so glad I have more things on my list than just myself.

    1. Teri Post author

      There definitely seems to be a women vs. men divide here, not to mention an era difference. But seeing his home and hearing his story did bring up all that old stuff, the fact that it’s okay for men, particularly artistic men, to escape real life responsibilities long enough to get their work done.

      And that said, I so admire the work of these men, so I’m torn.

  14. independentclause

    Don’t participate in the myth! If you write, you’re a writer.

    I think about Townes VanZandt, who left his young family, toured around a lot, to become the famous (in some circles) singer/songwriter that he was. He writes well, but he wrecked his voice on cocaine, drinking, etc. His later albums are well-written but sound awful. Does Townes abandoning everything for his art seem romantic? Yes. Could I do it? No. I like living in my house with my man and I don’t feel like developing a cocaine habit. Not in the mood.

    God, I sound a lot more self-righteous than I feel.

    1. Teri Post author

      You don’t sound one bit self-righteous. I should tell you that within an hour of my writing this blog post someone emailed me to tell me how judgmental it sounds, how judgmental I sound. So what do I know.

  15. LauraMaylene

    I often wonder why I need to take the safe route, like always having a full-time job when there have been times I could have afforded to just quit and write. I mean, imagine what kind of work I could get done if I didn’t have a job — it would be amazing! And yet I feel lured by health insurance and the security of having a job and have therefore always had one. *That* makes me wonder if I have what it takes.

    On the other hand, there is so much myth that surrounds being a writer, and much of it is bullshit. You don’t need to ostracize yourself from your family to write or starve or live in a box or anything else ridiculous like that. Guess what? If we were starving or had zero family, etc., we’d probably be too depressed/hungry/desperate to write. Just write. You’re already a writer, you have what it takes. Just write.

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