The Sacrificial Lamb – Writing begins with what you give up

I’m looking at the title for today’s post and wondering whether it comes across as cynical. I don’t mean for it to be. When I talk about writing as a sacrifice I’m not trying to imply that one must lose something good in exchange for something of equal or lesser value. The exchange is in answer to a calling. When it comes to the craft of writing there is no avoiding the fact that some things must be let go in order to make room for a new lifestyle.

By the looks of contemporary sensibilities the arts of reading and writing are on shaky ground. I read an article just the other day about a professor who said that spelling and grammar were no longer necessary thanks to smart phones. Thanks a lot, Professor, for adding to the mythology of the technological utopia. As soon as some twelve year-old gets it in their head that adults no longer expect them to learn spelling and grammar we’ll be in free-fall to universal dumb before you can spell “kat.”

The point I want to make about sacrifice, however, has less to do with my dismay at the slowly deteriorating intellect in our culture, and more to do with the simple fact that really good and important things come through work and sacrifice, and the sacrifice is usually of things we don’t need much anyway. The sacrifice in learning and using good grammar and spelling comes in the hard work it takes to grasp concepts that are otherwise accommodated for us through technology. When it comes to writing, however, there is no device that can take the place of imagination and ingenuity.

A writer is tasked to eschew the old habits of downtime. For example, I gave up pay television, for the most part, nineteen years ago. I have had it for a few sports seasons since then, but inevitably I give it up to create the right environment to write in. Without television I am forced to find other forms of entertainment. Reading and writing fit nicely when there’s no chatter-box nearby to infringe on my otherwise perfectly functioning mind.

I am not saying that giving up television makes me better than anyone else. But I am calling it a sacrifice that allows me the time and focus to write. I suppose I could give up all forms of working for an income and just watch TV between writing sessions. But then I would also have to give up food, shelter, my health, and then, finally, the television. I guess it just isn’t worth it for me.

On a more serious note, television is really a poor example of this sacrifice I am speaking about. There are other substantial sacrifices a writer makes when maintaining diligence in the craft. The simple life is often one of the first things to go. In a simple life one lives in blissful ignorance. Work, family, God, country – or some such order – all coalesce to form the simple life. There is a willful dismissal of that which might cause one to pine for the challenge of sussing out the deeper notions of the human condition and to follow that up with the painstaking effort of composing a meaningful essay about one’s discoveries. Far better to move through the circles of the well-planned life. 9-5 work, children’s events, Saturday barbecues, Sunday services, beer and wine, holy water, spilled milk. Not to make light of the standard American life – at the very least it serves as fodder for the writer who studies her surroundings and then re-images them in prose or poetry.

Yet, the writer sacrifices here as well, an outsider in all things “normal.” We cannot look upon the disasters of our own lives without seeing them artfully. In this way the writer sacrifices a piece of their own humanity, ultimately to regurgitate it as all humanity, and if done well to the praise and admiration of other human beings who have made some connection with it. Sometimes the writer finds satisfaction in connecting with others in this way, but sometimes not. Still, it’s not as if the diligent writer has any choice. If they – if we – do not practice the craft, we will lose ourselves anyway.

Writers often sacrifice sleep, comfort, companionship, and pleasure. Perhaps this is why so many fall prey to extremes. It’s not that writers never have down time, but when it comes it follows a different schedule than most other people. Writers take their down time at two-thirty in the afternoon, on a weekday, in October, and they don’t come up for air for three days before getting back to work – on a Saturday, at three in the morning . . .

Sacrifice for a writer extends into the craft itself. Once the draft is complete and the body of written work sits before us, pristine and elegant in the blur of typeface, the greatest sacrifice of all is laid bare. The infant, the squealing puppy, the squirming grub of our imagination sits before us in need of maturation, and so, pen in hand (or in mind, at the least) we descend into the flesh of our creation and, mercilessly, carve away the gelatinous flesh, exposing bone and muscle, wailing alongside the previously sacrosanct offspring of our imagination as we eliminate the weaknesses of our own fallibility. What we present, finally, to the rest of the world is a hardened and deconstructed version of the formerly fatted inspiration. And we hold it up, feebly, and ask for approval.

This is the final sacrifice for the writer – a pound of of flesh, expertly carved from the body of our own psyche, and with it a little pride. In exchange we gamble what we’ve lost on the potential of the return. That someone might approve and in that approval restore our pride ten-fold, our confidence elevated to the stars, and our self-worth redoubled so that we are ready to do it again.

And even if none of that happens we will return, because what we sacrifice as writers is the fuel that feeds us. We give up the ways of common life to engage in something that can only be attained by leaving behind average things.

We do this, finally, because we must.

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2 comments on “The Sacrificial Lamb – Writing begins with what you give up

  1. jcollyer says:

    You express these ideas so well: “The infant, the squealing puppy, the squirming grub of our imagination sits before us in need of maturation, and so, pen in hand (or in mind, at the least) we descend into the flesh of our creation and, mercilessly, carve away the gelatinous flesh” – THIS IS JUST WHAT IT FEELS LIKE X'(

    I have a deadline for a novel draft at the moment and I have cut back on my biggest time-consumer: socialising. I have cut down or cancelled all that I can and instead, after work, I sit to write every night. I’m lucky in that is doesn’t actually feel like a sacrifice. I’m loving every minute of it. I resent having to go to work and being seperated from it. But this is the drafting stage. This is the fun bit. When I get to the editing bit…that’s going to feel like the above.

    Oh and you’re right about TV. We don’t have TV at all. TV I’ve always found is the easiest way to do nothing for hours on end. Sometimes people need that, especially if they have demanding jobs or whatever. And that;s fine, that’s their choice. But it’s amazing what you can get done in an evening if it’s not spent in front of the TV.

    Thank you for another wonderfully expressed and interesting post.

    • emperort says:

      Thank you, J! Best wishes with your work and deadline. Be sure to let us know how things are going as they develop. I am about to get back to revision myself. I was teaching for a month and it gave me some distance on the novel, so very soon I will be back to the carving part.

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