On Quitting Writing: "I Can't Go On. I'll Go On."
By Becky Tuch
Recently I read a moving essay by a writer at a crossroads. He had worked hard at his literary career, but things had not quite panned out the way he’d hoped. He felt the pressures of getting older and was facing more serious responsibilities. Thus he found himself facing a painful question: Do I keep writing?
Reading this made me anxious, undoubtedly because it reminded me of the many, many, many times I have reached the same sort of crossroads. As a matter of fact, I don’t think there’s a writer in the world who hasn’t at one time or another been forced to confront this question—Do I or don’t I? Can I or can’t I? What will I gain? What do I stand to lose?
Ultimately, the writers who keep going seem to be the ones who simply must keep going. Some unwritten story, some fragment of a sentence, some image—being haunted and inspired by these things is ultimately what separates the ones who stop from the ones who simply could not stop, even if they tried. That, and the six figure book advance which is undoubtedly around the next corner.
How have other writers walked through these darker moments of self-doubt and come out on the other side? What keeps writers going when the pressures to quit seem too great? How do we face our self-doubt and our fear and persist nonetheless?
Writers and editors weigh in:
Kate Flora, author of REDEMPTION and the Thea Kozak mystery series:
After four mysteries and two contracts, I finally sold my "break out" novel. The publisher wanted it under a new name, they treated me like a queen, I had actual promotion and a small book tour (they wouldn't let me go to California, even on my own dime). It was a book club selection and bought for an audio book. I thought I was going to the show. Instead, the book didn't earn out, my series publisher dropped the series, no one in New York would touch me because my book hadn't taken off...and overnight, I went from the top of the world to the bottom of the barrel. I decided I had three choices: I could quit writing and go back to practicing law; I could go out on 128 at rush hour and throw myself into traffic (the choice that briefly seemed most right); or I could start taking chances. I chose taking chances.
From that very dark time, taking chances led me to spend seven years as one of the editors and publishers of a series of crime story anthologies, putting more than 120 stories, and many, many voices, new and old, into print. It led me into a collaboration on a true crime book that garnered an Edgar nomination and has been optioned for a movie. It led me into writing a new police procedural series that I love.
My bottom line would be: acknowledge how much it hurts, but remember that ONLY YOU get to decide that you're a writer. It takes the hide of an alligator to survive this business. But when it is good, it's very, very good.
Mark Polanzak, writer and editor of Draft: the journal of process:
I have experienced discouragement and declining enthusiasm to write for many reasons at many stages in my writing life.
Two that seem note-worthy are opposites: I have felt like giving up writing when encountering work that totally stuns me. I have also felt like giving up when encountering news of writers getting book deals for hackneyed book proposals -- sentences and works that haven't yet been crafted.
When people are rewarded for selling out (seeing financial literary success for promising to produce something that is safe, similar to other books that have sold fairly well), I begin to see the literary world as much the same as Hollywood: the emphasis is on formulas for what has worked in the past, what makes money, and not what is of artistic value.
When I see true originality and stunning sentences and ideas, I see that in order to break through the onslaught of safe and unoriginal work, the writing must be other-worldly, and I am not nearly as good.
I get discouraged when I see that some succeed for the polar opposite reason: conformity and seeking acceptance before any actual artistic impulse.
So, I think either I can never do this, because I'll never be able to write something that good, or I think I can never do this because I'll never be able to stoop to that level.
I have written two books. In both I wanted to be original and write something from some place within me. Both manuscripts have been declined countless times by publishers (a large majority of which see the book as a "tough sell"). So, I think I'm stuck, at this point in my writing career, in the middle of selling-out and being a really good writer. I am striving to improve and mature rather than dedicate time to selling myself somehow.
I have never actually thrown in the towel, but I have taken time off, contemplating whether or not I should ever show anyone in publishing my work again. I guess I've given up sending ms's out but never really stopped writing stuff.
Ethan Gilsdorf, author of FANTASY FREAKS AND GAMING GEEKS:
Have I felt like giving up this habit called writing? Yes. Some common reasons: It's a lonesome profession. The pay is lousy. It's extremely difficult to get attention, recognition and an audience for your work. Did I mention the pay is lousy? I don't have a retirement plan and I'm not getting any younger. Being a writer, it's just you working for and against yourself.
I have been tempted multiple times (perhaps once a month) to bag this freelance writing gig and get a proper job. But the more I think if what I'd lose -- freedom, flexibility, and the true privilege of being allow to think and craft with words each day -- the less inclined I am to give up the writing life. (Note: Unlike some writers, I don't have a day job; I do make most of my living from freelance feature and essays writing, and part-time teaching.)
In my darkest moments, I think of the Samuel Beckett quote: "I can't go on. I'll go on." It's a contradictory state of being that makes no sense yet makes all the sense in the world.
Matthew Frederick, author of 101 THINGS I LEARNED IN ARCHITECTURE SCHOOL:
Necessity is the only answer I can think of… one writes because he has to...I started my first book over 20 years ago and still haven’t finished it. In the interim, I’ve written seven others, and I keep realizing the need to write more before I can go back to my magnum opus. All this makes it sound pretty simple and additive, but it isn’t. Much of the time, it’s pure hell and makes me question my worth at my core.
A person who helps me go on in such circumstance is the late, great Jane Jacobs, who wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. Not only is this one of the most compelling nonfiction argument books you will ever read, it is beautifully written. ...I had the privilege of speaking with Jacobs a few times in the 1990s when I had already spent six years on the project. She read some of my early drafts. “Take the time you need to figure out your message, and don’t worry about others beating you to it,” she told me. “Other people don’t know how to think like this.”
Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, writer and winner of Boston’s Literary Death Match tournament:
I quit for ten years! Cold turkey and totally. I was terrified of failing at something I so loved and was scared that if I wrote, I'd write about themes/events I was trying so hard not to think about. I didn't even take an english class in college, so terrified was I of failure. When I started to write again, the process was like leakage-- stories were coming out, and there wasn't much I could do about it. I used the first/only story I'd finished as an adult to apply to MFA programs, reasoning that the only way I was finally going to write was if someone forced me to. I don't recommend this method-- it meant that I spent MFA school trying to learn just to write, nevermind to write well, so I think a lot of craft discussion was lost on me-- but I am grateful for it.
Marc Foster, writer:
I went through a rough patch in 2006 and 2007 when I was sending out seventh and eighth drafts of stories and not placing anything. What got me through that was mentors I had met through Grub Street. Pamela Painter said, basically, "look, this story is on its thirteenth draft, but it's not finished -- so stop whining and keep revising." Steve Almond gave me the same advice. The kindly visage of Jenna Blum hovered over me like Cate Blanchett's Galadriel in "Lord of the Rings." Without encouragement from these three I would have quit, no question. I owe each a heavy debt.
Ilan Mochari, author of the forthcoming ZINSKY THE OBSCURE:
What inspires me to persevere are the books that got me through tough times as a kid. I have reread them so many times since then (short list: Catcher in the Rye, The Lords of Discipline, Ordinary People, The Last Picture Show), and -- this is where it gets cheesy -- I think about how one day there might be a young person out there who'll be a little less blue because of something I wrote. And this thought, slightly narcissistic though it is, truly keeps me going and makes me want to do nothing else.
Yael Goldstein, author of THE PASSION OF TASHA DARSKY:
My mom. Unceasing encouragement bordering on browbeating. Would likely have stopped long ago if not for her.
One major thing that gets me through the times I consider giving up: reading interviews with writers I admire, in part because it reminds me of the closeness writing engenders and makes writing seem less solitary and more an ongoing conversation, and in part because it reminds me that all writers' processes and lives are their own, and therefore there is no right or wrong way to work and live--that there are no rules, no deadlines for art. Another major thing: a picture of a Leonberger puppy I keep on my desktop. He looks radiantly happy and like he has complete faith in me. Some days I rely on him.
So it is. Quitting and persevering are struggles that every writer faces, and faces anew with each project and each new foray into the unpredictable waters of publishing.
What about you, dear hardworking writer? Have you ever quit? Ever wanted to quit? What has brought you back, time and time again, to the page?
Becky Tuch is the founding editor of The Review Review.