A Writer's Passion: Compulsion and Covenant

A Writer's Passion: Compulsion and Covenant

February 05, 2015

I’ve been sitting next to a full martini for forty minutes. It’s dirty. Four ripe, stuffed olives. I can smell it. It’s been waiting so long it’s starting to sweat.

Arched over the glass, a stem of white orchids kiss the lamplight. Four years of water in quarter cups, daily light, and fastidious pruning for these three blooms. 

Is this Hemmingway and Mother Teresa, or Dickinson and Dumas?


I’ve been sitting next to Ann’s death for nearly four months. I wrote about hospice, her diagnosis, as they were happening, but her death I’ve left alone. It’s been a choice. I could find the words: that’s my job. But I’ve let it be. Like the martini, I’m letting it wait.


Literary legacy does not support my decision. Either one. Most of the great writers have been somehow obsessed—so gripped by emotion, character, or compulsion that the call of their art was irresistible. They were right: most of it still is.

Their visions were singular and relentless.

  • “When I had to write it, then it would be the only thing to do and there would be no choice,” Hemmingway says.
  • “Follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly,” Kafka demands.
  • Dillard adds, “Give it, give it all, give it now.”
  • Thoreau calls the writer who postpones a cooled iron: “Write while the heat is in you.”
  • Orwell’s books arrived like “some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
  • Dickinson needed her cooling bells.

Passion is part of the artist’s playbook. We get swept into surging currents and tumble forward gaining speed. We feel the firm roots and hanging branches slide past our palms, let go our grip of shore and set our eyes on the horizon. We gulp in the rushing air and roar as we’re thrust over the edge in a spray of cold color.

At least that’s the story.


Most of the writers that could, couldn’t do something else. And the something else was often terribly important—parent, make money, get sober, feel happy, stay faithful. Not that I’m five for five, but ten years into a mortgage and fifteen years into a marriage do not improve my literary prospects. Irresistible corrodes in the face of a vow to cleave. I’ve let myself go to my children. Is Christian art worse for this? We may be less talented, too privileged, or too nice. Or temperance may be tethering us to shore. If compassion trumps passion can we ever be more than friends? If I can choose not to write, am I a real writer? “A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity,” Rilke says. “That is the only way one can judge it.”


Abandon can be a funny thing. I’ve given myself away to my husband, my children, my students, and those commitments have taken with them pieces of my art. My passion has been diffused, measured out in quarter cups. My decision to keep covenant has changed me: my passions are governed, I am not carried away.

Hemmingway, Kafka, and Dickinson tell me the rushing river proves the writer. Their works second the motion. But their lives were tortured, squelched, hollow, or sacrificed. Jesus claims his yoke is easy, his gift is life abundant. He was also tortured—but I’m reminded that was only his death. His life appears to be full of flourishing: friends, rest, healing, food and wine, fishing, and moments to notice the flowers, sit with the children, walk through the vines. And I’m reminded that Christ’s passion didn’t sacrifice anyone but himself.

It’s romantic. And difficult. Everyone who was anyone called Jesus a slacker. He died without writing anything down. Covenant says I’m likely to die misunderstood: as common, domestic, and reaching as velveteen.

But even this reminds me that there may be other ways to be real—if I’m willing to be shabby and risk getting old. Promises aren’t sexy. Sharing slows us down. There’s no way around it. So for now I look to the orchids. I bide the time, tend the soil. I don’t know if this makes me real. While we wait to find out, I’ll raise my glass to you and to all the promises that have slowed you down. The martini has waited long enough.

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