A couple of weeks ago, I posted about aspects of the writing/publishing business that had surprised me over the course of my career. I touched on a lot of the unpleasant surprises that the business throws our way; I have to admit that it wasn’t my most uplifting post. In response to what I wrote, one of our loyal readers, known in these parts as Pea Faerie, asked a terrific, albeit sad question: At what point do you throw in the towel?
I thought I would address that today, because the fact is nearly every professional writer faces this question at one point or another in the course of his or her career. This is a hard business, and our careers rarely follow a linear path upward. I would urge you all to re-read Misty’s beautiful post from a few weeks ago, in which she so eloquently addressed her own fears about the business.
Let me start by saying that I have considered more than once giving up on writing. Usually I have done this in the wake of some huge disappointment — a string of rejections for a new project or bad news on the sales front. As a professional writer, I know that these things are just part of the business. I should be able to weather them and come back stronger than ever, right? Despair is for those who don’t understand the publishing industry, who haven’t made a living this way and thus don’t know that bad times are as much a part of being a writer as copyedits and poorly attended book signings. I have tried to tell myself as much. I have berated myself for being “weak” and allowing a few setbacks to break my spirit.
The fact is, though, sometimes the flow of bad news gets to be too much. It’s not that I flinch at the first sign of trouble. But after a while, a person starts to feel bruised, battered, battle-weary. I’ve found that I can take the sharp pain of a single rejection, but eventually the dull ache of cumulative blows starts to make me question whether the poor pay and frustration is worth the struggle. I could explain this more, but all of you are writers, and I would imagine that every person reading this understands almost intuitively what I mean.
So, back to the question: When do we give up?
I’m not going to say “We don’t.” This career isn’t for everyone, and we can only bang our heads against the wall for so long before persistence no longer makes sense. But here’s the thing: I don’t think we should make that huge decision to give up in the wake of a rejection, or even a string of rejections. And I also don’t think that we should decide to give up when we’re in that emotional crater I was describing a moment ago. The time to give up is when things are going well.
“But, David, that makes no sense. Why would we give up then?”
Simple: Giving up when things are going well is the only way to ensure that you won’t regret your choice. Hear me out: This is not quite as crazy as it sounds.
When I was in graduate school getting my history Ph.D. I must have considered chucking the whole thing at least a hundred times. Graduate school was a grind, it was deeply frustrating, at times it bordered on demeaning. I grew to hate it and I sensed well before I finished my degree that I would not be happy as an academic. But I also knew that if I didn’t finish my degree and make the attempt to find an academic position somewhere, I would always wonder if I had quit because it was too hard, or because it really wasn’t for me. I completed my degree, I applied for jobs, and I finally received a dream offer to teach in my specialty at a very good research institution in a beautiful part of the country. I happened to get that offer within 24 hours of hearing from Tor Books that they were interested in my first book. And so I turned down the academic job offer.
The point is, I left academia on my own terms. I left feeling as good about my academic credentials as I ever had, and I have never looked back with any regret at all. Now those were unique circumstances; I was extremely fortunate to have it all come together as it did. Not everyone gets to do it that way. And to be clear, I’m not suggesting that you wait until your first fiction sale and THEN quit. That would be nuts.
But I am saying that you shouldn’t allow rejections to kill your dream. That makes no more sense than allowing a bad week of writing to convince you to give up on your work in progress. The pain I talked about before — both the sharp pain of a single setback or the dull ache of a dozen — is a sign that your passion remains undiminished, that you are still desperate to write. If you didn’t care, it wouldn’t hurt. You can harness that pain, turn it into creative energy, use it to make yourself a better writer. Why would you throw that away?
No, the time to quit is when you don’t feel anything anymore. That’s when you know that being a writer doesn’t matter and that you won’t be dogged by regret for the rest of your life. If you sell a story or a book, and it doesn’t send you careening into fits of Snoopy-dancing, then you know that you need to move on with your life. Or if things are going along as they usually do: no highs, no lows — just the daily work of writing your book — and you find that you really feel no passion for the project or, for that matter, any other project, then that might be a sign that you shouldn’t be writing anymore. In other words, if you reach a point where you no longer care whether your book is any good, where the thought of never being published doesn’t affect your emotions one way or another, THAT’S when you throw in the towel. Because at that point you’re not a writer anymore. You’re a person who used to write.
What’s that? You can’t imagine ever reaching that point? Oh. Well, in that case, I suppose I could have saved us all some time. Because in that case the answer to “When do you give up?” might just be, “You don’t.”
I’m on the road today, visiting colleges with my older daughter. But I will try to check in later in the day to respond to comments. In the meantime, feel free to talk amongst yourselves. Have you considered giving up on your dream of writing? What stopped you?David B. Coe http://davidbcoe.livejournal.com http://www.DavidBCoe.com http://www.dbjackson-author.com http://magicalwords.net
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