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When to Call It Quits as a Writer

Perseverance is an indispensable part of being a writer. Knowing when to give up, to admit failure, change course, is an indispensable part of being a human. At least, a smart, sane human.

But do “real” writers ever give up? (Not to mention, are they ever really “sane”?)

If you frequent writers’ circles, you will inevitably hear an aspiring author make a confession like this one:

“I give up. I’m done writing. I’ve applied all the advice, attended conferences, read craft books, spoke to professionals, and joined a critique group. I’ve spent hours writing and rewriting. But still no luck. Rejection after rejection, letdown after letdown. My writer friends tell me I’m good, that I should keep pressing on. But I’m tired. My family has suffered, my health has suffered. I’m beginning to doubt myself and my talent. Maybe it’s time to throw in the towel, huh? Nice try, but I just ain’t got it.”

What follows is usually a round of sighs and attaboys. “You’re almost there,” we say. “You’ve got too much talent to stop now.” Before issuing the obligatory reminder that Stephen King was rejected 41 times before he skyrocketted to fame.

Confession: I sometimes wonder whether encouraging an aspiring author to “keep writing” is the right thing to do. I mean, maybe they do need to quit. Maybe they don’t have the talent. Maybe they’re in it for the wrong reasons. Or maybe they just need a break. Either way, telling a struggling writer to “keep pressing on” is not just cliche, it can be misguided.

Perhaps it goes back to our “calling.” But  how does someone know they’re “called to write”? It’s a sticky question, one that people invariably answer differently. However, without a reasonable sense of surety that they are following a “divine” lead, I don’t know how a person can rationalize pursuing such a difficult profession.

Could it be that some aspiring authors struggle with a career because they haven’t really been “called” to write?

Stephen Koch, in The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, strikes a similar note of caution:

Lorrie Moore begins her famous short story “How to Become a Writer” with this blunt recommendation: “First try to be something, anything, else.” Though vocations, like talent, can be damaged, they are rather hard to destroy. “I still think,” Moore says, “you should become a writer only if you have no choice. Writing has to be an obsession — it’s only for those who say, ‘I’m not going to do anything else.’” (emphasis mine)

Which shoots to hell this notion that being a writer is a leisurely romp. You know, endless cocktails, sleep until noon, awash in royalty checks.  Maybe if people really understood how tough the world of professional publishing is they’d feel less called.

But what if writing IS an “obsession” for an author and they can’t “do anything else.” They do it on their spare time. They do it whether or not they receive a cent. Must they see “measurable results” to continue?

I suppose it depends on what that author believes are “measurable results.” I mean, if an author simply wants to finish their book and bury it in the back yard, who am I to say they haven’t succeeded? If they’re happy writing for “the love of the craft,” then who cares about rejections?. If they’re satisfied dolling out free e-Books, who needs attaboys? Is this any less noble?

Which is the crux of my muse: It’s important to distinguish between writing to “get published” and writing to write, to create, to use your gifts, to express yourself.

People who want to call it quits as writers are usually those who haven’t made that distinction. They are writing for the wrong reason.

  • They are writing for accolades.
  • They are writing for validation.
  • They are writing for money.
  • They are writing for publication.

This is not to say that writing “for the love of it” precludes publication (or money, accolades, or validation), but that the approach is entirely different. You have less reason to bail on writing if your writing is tied to something other than whether or not you get published.

Writers who focus more on craft and motivation, seem to quit less than those who focus on publication and money.

Self-publishing has not helped this discussion. Now, anyone can be a writer. Rather than bury your book in the back yard, you can bury it in the Amazon Abyss. Why wait for professional gatekeepers to acknowledge your talent? Nowadays, an ISBN is all you need for cred.

But if that’s the case, is there ever a time to quit?

I think there is. There is a time to admit that you jumped on a bandwagon. That you had some talent, and over-reached. There is a time to admit that all those rejections mean something. There is a time to admit that your family and your health are suffering due to your obsession with writing.  There is a time to admit that self-publishing has not raised your stock. There is a time to throw in the towel and admit that the “call to write” was a figment of your imagination.

So how do you know you’re not one of these writers?

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{ 53 comments… add one }
  • BK Jackson September 27, 2011, 10:26 AM

    Tim said: “In my experience the people who stick with writing are the ones who read for very different reasons than the average reader. Yes they read to be entertained but they also read because their mind and soul yearns from something more than day dreaming and television. And as they read, their mind keeps turning to how they might tell a similar story. Then it moves to how they might tell a very different story. Then it moves to how that might tell a very different story in a very different way. The see possibilities that beg to put on paper. Published or not, that person IS a writer”

    Tim, that is as perfect an assessment I have seen for writers. I find other creative pursuits to be neat ideas–“I’ll take up painting someday” I’ll say, or “I’d really love to learn to draw animals and landscapes.” For me, those are hobbies, not something I’m willing to make much sacrifice for. It shows what is hard-wired and what is not.

    • Tim George September 27, 2011, 11:01 AM

      My friend and pastor often says, “People tell me they would love to learn to play the piano like some great master. No they wouldn’t. They would love to play that way but they aren’t willing to do what it takes to ‘learn to play’ that way.'” The two are quite different.

      Learning to writer well is a process most of us don’t relish. Like the night I got an email from my friend Athol Dickson telling me I still had a long way to go before my work was ready for a publisher. And the all nighter that followed as I labored to offer something better for him to consider. And the months that followed as I rewrote almost every page of a MS I had considered already complete. And the … You get the picture. A lot of people would like to write but there are days I must force myself to take the often lonely path of learning to write.

  • Bob Avey September 27, 2011, 5:06 PM

    You make some good points, Mike. Perhaps there are some writers out there that should call it quits. In the old days, when you had to find a real publisher to get published, that sort of took care of itself. Now, with the Kindle revolution, talent is no longer a requirement. Whether that is a good thing or a bad one, I’ll leave that to others.

  • Katherine Coble September 28, 2011, 11:38 AM

    I missed most of this excellent post and commentary as I was on vacation.

    I’m called to write. I’m good at it. But that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t set aside a certain story or piece until I’m ready to go into that world again. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m going to get rich at it. I’ve been paid to write (or edit) in one form or another for more than twenty years now. Sometimes it’s just copy. Sometimes it’s a work-for-hire thing. Never is it any more than a few hundred dollars at a time. But I’m not in it for the $. I’m in it because there is simply nothing else I am as good at, nothing else I am as compelled to do.

    Being called to write is far different from being called to fame and fortune. Sadly, many people who claim to have received the “call to be a writer” don’t get the difference.

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