Leave You Your Power to Draw: The Artist and Habitual Sacrifice

"Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay."
~Flannery O’Connor

"I have to sacrifice something to form any good habit. There are some things I refuse to sacrifice; sleep isn’t one of them."

"You draw me, you hard-hearted adamant;
But yet you draw not iron, for my heart
Is true as steel; leave you your power to draw,
And I shall have no power to follow you."

Enough artists better than myself have explained the truism that artistic habits require sacrifice. I don't feel the need to explain it further. With few exceptions due to extreme circumstances, anyone who wants anything badly enough will make the sacrifices necessary to attain it—which is how I finish novels, but never manage to stick to an exercise regimen.

Wanting something badly is much of what makes novel-writing such a horrible experience. Now, it's perfectly possible to spend November splurging on wild plot points and indulging your own psyche, and come out with a NaNoWriMo win that was no more than moderately difficult to achieve. It's even possible to discover that you've got the makings of a sincerely good story at the end. I've done that. But that's not writing a novel, not as O'Connor means it; at best, it's writing a rough draft.

Three years after writing my first—trunk manuscript not counted—rough draft, I'm still revising out weak storytelling decisions, and yes, I actually have been sweeping a lot of my own hair off the floor. Though I've mostly been remembering to brush my teeth.

And now, I come up against the impossible.

I have tried and tried to come up with something worth saying about sacrifice and the desire to be an artist, and after putting in almost a full day of effort with no success whatsoever, must admit defeat. The problem, I think, is that the desperation with which I want to be an artist is the sort of thing I can't speak openly about; it runs parallel—rather too closely parallel, in fact—to the desperation for motherhood, which I have a hard time even mentioning. Both are too primal, and frankly, too embarrassing.

So, just speaking for my life at the everyday level: sacrificing for art is not usually difficult for me. Sacrificing art for things like sleep and food and family time—now that, I find challenging.

Not that I have no struggles, mind. Every time I click on someone's unfriendly political link on Facebook, I know I'm wasting emotional energy. Every time I go to choir practice, I know I'm prey once again to wanting too many things; there's no point stressing myself out about music when my voice is really just gone. Better to put my efforts into what I can still do.

But then, sometimes little things like that are what keep me human, and keep me from burning out. Which are important goals, even for an artist. After all, trying to become an artist is chasing stars in the worst kind of way. It's difficult to know whether you're any good, and nearly impossible to predict success. Like Shakespeare's Helena, you follow the desire of your heart into Oberon's wood, ignoring rebuffs, with no hope except that you might possibly be overheard by sympathetic magic—and no matter what you do, you're going to come out a fool, so best to be a human one.

Pursuing art is painful, and results are unpredictable. But as Masha pointed out, at least it's an act of hope.

"Forming a habit of art is an act of discipline, and an act of hope. I am working through my free hours in the hope that some thing I produce will have value. Not merely to me, but to someone reading it. Not that it will be loved and acclaimed, but that it will do good. It is a hope that is encouraged through correspondence, through discipline, and through repetition."

“People without hope not only don't write novels, but what is more to the point, they don't read them.”
~Flannery O’Connor


  1. Jenna, two things here:

    1) This:

    "Like Shakespeare's Helena, you follow the desire of your heart into Oberon's wood, ignoring rebuffs, with no hope except that you might possibly be overheard by sympathetic magic—and no matter what you do, you're going to come out a fool, so best to be a human one,"

    is beautifully stated.


    2) There is much honesty and vulnerability in this post, which is very beautiful in its strength (even if being the one experiencing the things described herein, you may not feel it as such). Just know that the likes of me are humbled by it (is this a proper usage of "the likes of me"? lol who knows...), and that I'm praying for you for continued strength to strive for the things that run deepest within you.

    There is much "sympathetic magic" out there, and within you...continue to tune your life like an instrument in its direction, in order to welcome its blessings. :) (Hope I didn't complicate the metaphor too much there--something about "sympathetic magic" invokes the idea of music for me...)

  2. Donna said everything I wanted to say, and better than I would have. This post is amamzing.

    I would love to delve into magic and writing..you have an amazing ability to write simply and with rich feeling..it's absolutly beautiful.

  3. Donna and Masha, thanks... this is encouraging to hear. It's the sort of encouragement that helps me work through another week of all this. :) And I thoroughly appreciate the prayers.

    Magic and music do seem to be rather closely related. And if you decide to talk about magic and writing, Masha, I'll be intrigued to see that.

  4. I want to "ditto" what Donna and Masha have said, dear Jenna....

    "Sympathetic magic" is "out there," as you can see from the responses you are receiving from your lovely words. The phrase you use reminds me of two authors I hold close to my heart: Charlotte Bronte and Madeleine L'Engle.

    In L'Engle's An Acceptable Time, this "sympathetic magic" is described as: "There are lines drawn between the stars, and lines drawn between places, and lines drawn between people, and lines linking all three"--and those lines "grow short" (as in "bonding") when there is love and sympathetic harmony.

    In Bronte's Jane Eyre, when Jane thinks that she will need to leave on account of (mistakenly) believing that Rochester will marry another, Rochester says: "I sometimes have a queer feeling with regard to you--especially when you are near me, as now: it is as if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly and inextricably knotted to a similar string situated in the corresponding quarter of your little frame. And if that boisterous channel, and two hundred miles or so of land come between us, I am afraid that cord of communion will be snapt; and then I've a nervous notion I should take to bleeding inwardly."

    In short, keep writing and keep hoping.... we keep listening.

    1. Thanks so much, Carrie-Ann. Ah, I love L'Engle and Bronte--their words in both these cases are so beautiful, and I've always found that comment of Rochester's memorable. I've never read An Acceptable Time (should, though!), but what a lovely thought.

  5. Beautiful, beautiful post, Jenna! I'm back to lurking after a brief absence. :)

    1. Oh, and I hope it goes without saying, but I pray for you, too. <3

    2. I know--and I appreciate it! So much.

      Love and prayers to you, too. :)


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