The Writing Life: When Do You Give Up?


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

21 comments to The Writing Life: When Do You Give Up?

  • Nicely put, David. I actually talked some of my low points in the podcast interview Misty linked to yesterday, so I’ll spare you the extensive rehash. But the short version is yes, I nearly gave up many time on my long and winding road to publication, but my real low point came after I had published 3 (pretty successful) books and got dropped by my publisher and had to rethink where I went from there. It was very hard indeed, far harder than it had been to be rejected before getting published. It took almost two years before things really got back on track, and until it did things really felt that they could have gone either way. In another year or so everything I have under contract will be done and I’ll be figuring out where I go next. Right now it’s a given that I’ll keep writing, but I take nothing for granted anymore. As you said: it’s a tough business.

  • adamgaylord

    I’m relatively new to writing and admittedly a bit naive about the ups and down of the business. That having been said, they can pry my pen (or keyboard) out of my cold dead hands. Never give up!

    Good luck looking at colleges!

  • I have been in consideration of this very idea here recently. It seems like I just can’t put the wraps on a novel – I can’t take it from start to finish. Therefore, I have considered tossing in the towel. Added to this, I have a regular paid writing gig at Yahoo making political commentaries which pays more than I would making a fiction shortstory sale.

    So I guess I am letting the novel simmer for a while so I can see if it continues to gnaw at my brain or if it fades into the dark recesses of time. I hope the need to finish the novel grows as I neglect it because at the heart of it, I WANT to write.

    Good luck on colleges, btw! It is a very important choice to make.

  • David, well said. I ahve a friend who just turned 60, with a string of popular and successful series behind her. She is an accomplished writer. And she told me, “Two more books and I am done. I’m quitting. I just don’t care if I write another one after that.” I was stunned. Your post has helped me understand that she had lived her dream, and lost her passion. If that happens before that first sale, in the middle of several books, or after, at age 60, 80, 99, loss of that passion is the time to quit.

  • Ken

    Thanks for posting David. What you said really makes sense. Ironically, it’s given me a boost. The days have been pretty dark for me lately and I’ve wondered if the need was still there since it’s been so hard to get my head/heart back into the game. While I can count pretty easily the total number of words that I’ve written over the past nearly two weeks, I’m still coming back to the chair…I still need to tell stories despite the difficulty. Quitting when the chips are down is easy for all the wrong reasons, and if you can quit when things are going well, then the reasons are probably right.

    Good Luck college hunting 🙂

  • I was once in a writers’ group with a few octogenarian\septuagenarian writers (some of whom were unpublished.) I wondered what kept them going. I wondered if they still queried and looked for a market for the work that they clearly loved. Since one of them just published her first of two books, I can only assume that she at least was still looking for a market for her book. I guess that they hadn’t lost the passion for the work yet or maybe they were latecomers to the table. I don’t know, but I admired all of them.

    I quit writing for almost two years because my mother told me that I couldn’t write. (I’ve never really done anything well enough in her eyes so that shouldn’t have surprised me.) It took me a long time to pick up my keyboard again. That was the wrong reason to quit. I may quit writing again at some point, but it will be because I’ve given it my all and I no longer want to try.

  • David> thanks for the kind word and for answering, in detail, the question. Your answers make a lot of sense. At the time I asked the question, and now, I’m not anywhere in the realm of giving up (though the battering and bruising rejections are starting to come in). I’m jealous that you went to grad school at a time when it only BORDERED on demeaning. 🙂

    I was in a position to give up for the rejections in April. April through June of last year really was hard on me–some from writing, mostly from a lot of other things. Outside forces were killing me, and I got a rejection and thought “that’s it, I can’t do this anymore.” Luckily, it was a piece I had with Sarah, and I said “can you do the sending out now?” and she said “yes.” It made the rejections easier when they came from her, and I didn’t have to fear my inbox. (And after she started, we got requests for ‘scripts. Hmmm… maybe I should have her send out all my stuff!) So, at that point, it was only the family and friends I had around me that kept me from quitting.

    For now, I can’t see a time when I’d be done with writing, but maybe someday I will.

  • TwilightHero

    ‘…I would always wonder if I had quit because it was too hard, or because it really wasn’t for me.’

    I never thought of it this way before. This makes an excellent question to ask anyone thinking of giving up on something – especially yourself. Is it really not for you, or is it too hard? Are you moving on or just quitting?

    Anyway. While the realities of the business are sobering, I’m still young and idealistic. But I can imagine reaching that point somewhere down the line, where I just don’t care any more. There’s something wonderfully ironic about that. Imagination was what got me into writing in the first place. The idea of telling a story, of colourful characters and a gripping plot and an intriguing setting, has always fascinated me, and while I’ve thought of mine told through practically every medium there is – I once imagined it as a tabletop RPG, and I’ve never even played one of the things – I honestly think a book is the best format for a story there is. And until it’s told, in some form or other – and this is a long story – I know it will keep rattling around in my head, reminding me it’s there. So I think I’ll keep writing for a while. A thought-provoking post, as always.

    And good luck with the colleges. Higher education is important 🙂

  • sagablessed

    I have to admit, while I write mainly because there are stories to be told, I also write in hopes of supplementing my income. As someone with severe health issues (cancer and others), I cannot let go of the dream. So while I may beat my head against the wall, I will perservere until my brains dribble out my ears or the wall crumbles.
    I do not expect to be another King or Rowling, but I will surrender my dream of being published when they pry my laptop out of fingers stiff from rigor mortis.
    “Without hard work and dedication in the here-and-now, no matter the odds, can dreams be brought forth from the realms of the mind.”
    So be it.

  • I think about giving up most often when I’m tired. Feeling physically or emotionally exhausted for any reason takes its toll in my life, and I sometimes think that “life would be so much easier if I didn’t have this damn dream driving me forward with a bullwhip”. When I think about the time I spend pursuing writing, I sometimes wonder if it’s all worth it. I’m 27, single, with a dayjob and a limited circle of friends. What time I don’t spend at work or at the gym is spent writing. I can honestly look around me and say that I don’t have any idea what my future is going to be. I don’t have a life. If I continue as I am right now, I might never get one. So, yeah. When do I throw in the towel? It’s a tough question. At the moment, though, my answer is still “not yet”.

  • Excellent blog David (and if you and your daughter need financial aid advice (in general, unless she happens to be looking at SDSU ;)) I’m your gal 😉 Writer by night, Financial Aid counselor by day..

    My flip answer of when to quit would be when it’s no longer fun (sort of what you put ;)). But I’d also add I’d quit if I was no longer being me when I wrote. Concrete Blonde had a great line in one of their songs, “If I can’t stand tall, I’d rather walk away.” If I got to that point, or no longer loved writing (on the whole- we all have crappy days),I hope I’d walk away.

    Your points about not leaving when things go bad are spot on- it’s too easy to want to give into the emotions of that dark moment. Sadly, most of the times I’ve thought about it have been when I’ve gotten kicked in the teeth. But then I ask myself what else am I going to do instead? The sound of silence in my own head gets me back to writing. 😉

    Thanks again for an insightful blog-and good luck on the college tours 😉

  • I’ve often heard that one should never get divorced in anger, but wait until there are no feelings at all. I think that’s true of writing, too – only give up when there is no rush left, no thrill achieved from pages completed, no joy in work done. Until those feelings are gone, it isn’t time to give up yet. 😀

  • mudepoz

    It’s too soon for me to worry about it 😛

  • If I quit today it would be because I’m scared of the next step. Actually sending the novel out, writing the synopsis and pitch, absolutely horrifies me. I’d rather have a root canal. But I promised myself I wouldn’t direct my life based on fear, so now I have to go through with the submission process.

    If I genuinely felt that all the work it took to write wasn’t worth it to me and my goals as a person, I’d quit today. There’s no real money in it for me yet and may not ever be. I have other things I could be doing, including my day job. But right now nothing in my day job is as remotely satisfying writing a scene, as getting an idea and scribbling notes on the back of a receipt, or as reading someone else’s work and thinking “I see what they did there. I bet I could use this technique to make chapter 10 much better!”. Teaching comes close some of the time, but not in the same way. So I’ll keep writing for the love of it and hoping that with enough effort I might get some more tangible rewards.

    There are good reasons to quit something, especially something this hard, but none of them apply to me today. Besides, I can always quit tomorrow. 🙂

  • Razziecat

    I can’t quit writing, whether I ever publish or not, because nothing else feeds my soul the way writing does. At least I’ll know I tried.

  • It’s funny, this question was posed by a writing friend yesterday, too. I told her, “the thought of failure is too painful to contemplate, so I don’t think about it. I can’t give up. Even when I feel like I’m not making progress, I am.” This on the heels of another (yay, personalized) rejection, followed by a painful realization about what the story lacks, followed by a cascade of epiphanies about what I need to do to make my story better.

    Lately I’ve just been putting the blinders on and pushing forward. I *know* I can do this. I know all the pitfalls. The illusions have been shattered. I still want this more than anything. And if in the end this story doesn’t work out? I’ve got more.

  • I already quit once, for about 10 years. But then I quit that. Quitting didn’t work for me. It was too hard, and too painful, and I wasn’t getting any satisfaction from it. I thought about writing all the time. So I quit quitting.

    And that’s really the gist of it. If you CAN quit, you should. I you shouldn’t quit, you’ll find you can’t.

  • Fireheart1974

    A bit late but I really liked this post.

    “No, the time to quit is when you don’t feel anything anymore.” I think this is most succinct piece of advice ever given. And it could apply to everything in life not just writing.

    I used to run cons…and it honestly got to that point. I no longer cared about the success or failure of the convention. I ddin’t care of the attendees or the guests had fun. I knew then it was time to get out and so I quit running cons. I’ve helped…I’ve answered questions…but I haven’t “run” them. And sometimes that “quitting” is just a break and you get back into it…but it was you needed then and there.

    For me, I love to write. I hate getting stuck in the middle/beginning/end of a story. I hate when real life interferes and I don’t get as much time in front of the computer as I should. I hate that I can’t resist Castle when I should be writing. But I still have feelings for writing…there is a passion for trying to get the words out of my head, on to paper, and in front of someone else’s eyes. And that tells me it’s not time to quit.

    Good advice, David. Thanks!

  • […] here trying to think of clever ways to procrastinate distract myself, I read through a post on Magical Words that I had missed dealing with the question of when you should throw in the towel. David B Coe […]

  • Thanks to all for the great comments. I haven’t the time or energy right now to respond to all of them. But I do want to say that I’m glad this advice resonated with so many people. And if it kept even one person from quitting in anger or frustration or any of the other ephemeral emotions that drive us to consider chucking the whole thing, then it was worth the effort. Keep writing!

  • […] came across this question while checking out The Magical Words and it made me think long and hard about my writing […]