friday feast: do you really have to choose?


by Kenneth Koch

You want a social life, with friends,
A passionate love life and as well
To work hard every day. What’s true
Is of these three you may have two
And two can pay you dividends
But never may have three.

There isn’t time enough, my friends–
Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends–
To find the time to have love, work, and friends.
Michelangelo had feeling
For Vittoria and the Ceiling
But did he go to parties at day’s end?

Homer nightly went to banquets
Wrote all day but had no lockets
Bright with pictures of his Girl.
I know one who loves and parties
And has done so since his thirties
But writes hardly anything at all.
~ from Straits (Knopf, 2000).

When I saw this poem in Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s memoir, Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life (Three Rivers Press, 2005), it prompted me to reassess the choices I have made in my own life.

For me, love and friends are absolute necessities. Without them, how and where would I find the heart to write? But have I ever made writing a priority to the total exclusion of either love or friends?

*Squirms in chair*

In order to excel at what you do, no matter what line of work you’re in, sacrifices have to be made. I get that. Yet it seems writers, in particular, sacrifice something every minute of every day.

Writing is lonely; when you’re doing it, you miss your friends, and opportunities to make new friends.

When you’re with your loved ones, you feel guilty because you should be writing. If you don’t feel guilty, you sometimes wonder whether you should.

There really is no such thing as a non-writing activity. Everything you do (eating, breathing, reading, walking) affects your work in one way or another. And what about that little voice in your head who keeps whispering, “procrastination”?

As for me, I’ve written way more than I’ve partied. So, where are the promised dividends? What’s missing from the equation are factors I can’t control, which is pretty much everything but the actual writing.

Maybe I need to work on redefining “dividends.”

I’ll never understand why, in order to write true to life, you have to remove yourself from it.

In future, please remind me not to read any more poems by Mr. Koch.


The Roundup today is at Author Amok, (thank god I’m not alone in my amokness). Check out the fine poems being shared today — that is, if you can afford to socialize.

21 thoughts on “friday feast: do you really have to choose?

  1. That picture cracks me up–as does that e-card. I guess something does have to go, but not laughter. Please, not that.

    I can’t say I’ve found any balance myself, but I do try not to feel guilty. If you’re writing, write. If you’re with friends, be there. It’s hard to do sometimes, but at least if you’re aware how destructive guilt is, you can TRY to block it. Or just make all your friends writers and share the guilt. Yeah, that’s it.


  2. Love your analysis, Jama!

    I’m with Sara. I think it’s hard to find the balance. But I’m trying to live more in the moment to enjoy all of life’s offerings rather than feel the guilt.


  3. Jama, your post reminded me of this quote from Gustave Flaubert, which I found the other day on Writer’s Almanac. He said, “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” My orderliness definitely includes family and friends!


  4. Very interesting observation!! Yes, he did leave out parenting. At the risk of sounding sexist, the male point of view often discounts that part of life. Many great men have accomplished great things because their wives cared for their children and their homes in the background.


  5. What a struggle. It’s especially hard for me at the beginning of a project, before things are flowing, when sitting in front of the screen feels SO uncomfortable! I’m pretty much an introvert, but at those times I really feel like socializing!


  6. On Choosing

    Elaine M.

    I partied a lot with friends when I was young and married. Now I write more than I party. Maybe we can have all three things–just not at the same time.

    BTW, I love Koch’s poem.


  7. I remember the opening scene of the movie “Sylvia.” It was a voice over from Gwyneth Paltrow as Sylvia Plath, talking about the branches of the tree of her life. One branch represented her writing. Another represented her teaching. Another represented her family – being a wife and mother. She said that the branches cannot ALL thrive. *sigh*

    Into the Wardrobe


  8. Thanks for reminding me of that great film, and whoa — that opening scene, is precisely what Koch was getting at. She tried to find the right balance, and self destructed.


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