Continuing: Have you ever wanted to just give up?

I heard back from yesterday’s letter writer with something surprising, and poignant, and painfully true. It threw me back to being nineteen, and looking at the crash of some dreams of my own. With the permisson of the other writer, then, the continuation of our conversation.

If it takes a bit of insanity to stay in the business, then I do have at least some small chance. Jokes aside, thank you very much for your advice, in the reply and in the writing diary. Perhaps I’ve some talent at getting people’s gears turning.

Anyway, thank you. It’s cleared my head a little bit. Writing, in the end, is not so important; telling stories can be a beautiful thing, done right, or it can be a simple diversion about as useful and healthy as sitting in front of the television for four hours. Do you know, I’ve never analyzed why I wanted to be a writer; it simply seemed natural, and since I had some small inkling of talent for it, I thought, Run with it.

I don’t think this is the job for me, which is a terrifying thing to admit, because everything else that interests me, I have no means of getting training in, and probably not brains enough to do them competently. This is a rather fearful admission, because that makes me nearly indestinguishable from the millions of other workers-for-life in this country who didn’t get college, who didn’t get vocational training, and who didn’t do this, didn’t do that. (I already suspect that a lifetime of hard work only means a lifetime of living paycheck-to-paycheck, and that the only real way to make money is to set up shop in something; but even then there are risks involved and the risk of failure great, and I don’t have any notion of running a business. The American Dream as I understand it is this: Find something you love to do, and someone willing to pay you to do it. And for the longest time I’ve thought it was writing, because I’ve no talent with paint and no competency at programming, but was rather good at stringing together a few pretty words. And to find out that pursuing such a dream requires cladding your spirit in riot gear just to make it–yikes.)

Thank you for listening. Writing as a career is probably not for me, painful though that is to admit. It’s actually got me a bit teary thinking about it, because when I look at all the facts, all the thoughts, all the notions and all my ideas, I start to understand: I haven’t the grit it takes to get rejected over and over, and lack the willpower to plow through eighty-thousand words which might not come to anything.

In a very strange way, it makes me angry–the one road I thought I could easily walk, the one path I’ve set my mind on since I was twelve years old, turns out to be one of the worst paths I could have chosen. I ought to feel freed, because there are so many endless roads to choose from in this big world; but they’re all so dark to me, who hasn’t thought to go anyplace else. Dark, and lonesome, because I know no one who walks them. (Even the hardest way is manageable if you’ve got a friend to walk beside you. In this case I lack that luxury.)

All the talk in the world won’t solve our problems half as quickly as two good, strong hands; and I’ve done my share of talking.

And my response:

I know what it’s like to walk away from the dream, and to face a path with no lights, no signs, no guideposts. From the time I was six, I wanted to be a professional artist. I knew where I was going, so even though I looked at other careers, all through school I took art classes, focused on artwork, made sure everyone knew that I knew where I was going. I was okay. I didn’t need to think of other options. My future was assured.

And then I started to work as a commercial artist, and I discovered that I hated it. It wasn’t just disappointing. I actively hated the work. I was crushed, devastated, and completely lost. My future had turned from comfortably bright and known into a yawning abyss.

I fell into nursing as a frantic fallback. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I had a lot of my illusions about life kicked out of me, I learned life and death and personal sacrifice and setting priorities up close. And nursing taught me to find my compassion, and to listen to my soul.

I found writing by accident. It was first an escape from a bad marriage, and then it ripped into me and changed me. But only because I was ready to be changed. Only because I had first been a nurse.

There are some jobs where, if you go into them with your eyes open and with your mind questioning, you can be transformed. EMT, firefighter, cop, soldier, nurse—staff positions only, not office, not admin. These are frontlines jobs where lives are in your hands, where you see the best and the worst of humanity, where every day you have to make the choice “Do I do the right thing or the wrong thing,” and where every day your choice matters. These jobs can devour you. They can give you the opportunity, as no other work can, to become corrupt, venal, hard and cold, brutal. But they can also rebuild you, and fill you with a love for people that is anchored in the real, and not in trite phrases. You come out of them knowing, in bloodiest detail, exactly what your fellow humans are capable of, and yet, if you choose well, you can love them still. And you choose, every single day, which person you will be when you are done.

Consider a job of personal self-sacrifice—not as a lifetime career, perhaps, but as a path to finding and using your full humanity. You’ll get paid, you’ll eat and pay your bills, you’ll grow in ways you cannot imagine… and at some point other lights will come on, other signposts will beckon, and the future that is so dark now will offer doors that only your walk through the fire could have offered.

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About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

8 comments… add one
  • Jim Sep 16, 2007 @ 21:23

    So many hooks, and so little time (one reason I’ve been absent from here for the lat bit…)

    1. I feel a lot of sympathy for you in many ways. I’m in a position where I’m trying to steer a certain set of decisions in a particular direction. Taking the cheap way out now could literally cost lives (many lives) in a decade. Or not, or I may be worried about the wrong things now… I guess I’m living for the adrenaline now, because I’ve had one good night’s sleep in two weeks. Not in the immediate sense Holly is — but in the sense of being able to visualize just in exactly what ways the skeet could hit the fan, as it were, and knowing the consequences. It’s a crushing responsibility, and I hope I’m doing a good job of it. (Everyone says so, but even at 49 I’m fighting to keep my insecurity off of my sleeve over this one…)

    2. As to your correspondent, and I know this bitterly from the bottom of my own soul and from the experiences of others in my own life: Everyone makes bad choices, and sometimes there is dishonor in that. But ALWAYS the greater dishonor is knowing that you’ve made a bad choice, and trying to hide it, or cover it up, or pretend it didn’t exist. Or in continuing to go down the wrong path because you’re comfortable with the direction. (And ouch, putting things that baldly has reminded me of something else I’m having trouble with right now…)

    Not going to college or vocational school may NOT have been a bad decision at the time you made it (says a man who watched his stepdaughter flunk out of college twice after he was widowed… better no to go at all than to go when you are not mentally or emotionally ready for it). Wanting to be a writer, desiring to be a writer, being driven to be a writer is a honorable challenge.

    But one cannot predicate one’s entire life on one or two choices made years or decades (or even weeks or days) before. Plans can and should be changed when you have more experience of the circumstances, and greater wisdom with which to judge them, as Holly has noted in her response.

    The answer as always is “Forward Motion.” If you have encountered a hurdle — or a brick wall — in your journey, you can jump the hurdle, or climb the wall. Or sometimes you can take a different path, and even consider another destination entirely. You must make sure you know what you are doing, as best you can with what you know now. You must (or at least should) grow from the decisions.

    And you need not give up your dreams, for forever or even for a day. Just realize that perhaps your path for a career as a writer leads across the meadow of further schooling and another job whle pursuing your dream with renewed vigor and greater wisdom and experience.

  • alsmom38 Sep 15, 2007 @ 23:58

    Holly, I have been a fan for a long time and had a feeling I should visit your site to find some inspiration. I am not disappointed. This letter and your reponse and the responses of the other people who commented spoke to me as well, and I can’t keep my big mouth shut on this topic. I too have been thinking of giving up.

    I have been pursuing a writing career on the side while working at a plastics factory. I do have a degree as a paralegal, but the market sucks right now and I can’t buy a job in that field. I also have a 3 year gap in employment in that field, so I would have to go back to school and update my skills. I’m not willing to go through all of that because for the first time in my life I have a chance to pursue my dream of being a writer. My family has done an “intervention” because they think I’m ready to have a nervous breakdown, but it’s not the writing that’s making me unhappy. Its the other crap in my life. And they think I should “just give up the writing thing”. I can’t do that anymore than I can stop breathing. I’ve tried.

    To the letter writer, please don’t give up writing altogether. Journal, keep a diary, write down ideas, whatever you can do. For me, writing has been rewarding and a release and much cheaper than therapy. I have power and control in the universe I create on paper, much more than I do in my non-writing life, but you know what’s funny? It carries over. I get more confident in my life from the feelings I release and capture in my writing. If I’m really miserable, I know it’s because I haven’t been doing my writing.

    I know how hard it is. I know that not everyone who pursues this as a career or a life will be on the NY Times Bestseller List, but I believe that if you are doing it for the money, or the fame, you shouldn’t be doing it. You can make much better money in a lot of other fields. If you are doing it because you have a story that you are burning to tell, that you love the process itself, that you just would like to see your book in print and hold it in your hands, then go for it.

    The times I have thought of giving up, I have always thought of my favorite poem by Robert Frost, “I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” For all of those out there, no matter where you are in this life, do what’s right for you. If you write, write. If you don’t, good luck in whatever makes you happy. And Holly, that includes you too. Thanks for your honesty, and your help.

    Laura 🙂

  • enyafan713 Sep 14, 2007 @ 22:31

    Hi, Holly! Brian C. here, your Midnight Rain fanatic! It’s been waaaay too long since we last spoke via e-mail, and I apologize if you missed me. You know, because it seems like you have time for all of that nonesense!
    Anyway, I would like to add a comment for your letter-writer to read.

    Don’t give up writing completely. Keep writing. Get a job outside of writing, but don’t let your love of storytelling die. Who knowd…maybe you’ll finish a novel, and you can send it off (without getting your hopes up!) to a publisher, and you’ll be an instant success!
    Even if you don’t do that, writing is a great way to release emotions and to convey your inner thoughts. In my opinion, writing a poem or a book kicks the @$$ of a traditional diary!
    Keep writing, even if you only write during your lunch break. It is a wonderful thing if you enjoy it.

    Yours,

    Brian

  • Virsu Sep 13, 2007 @ 12:18

    I just had to register and leave a comment, because I can SOOOOO relate to the letter writer and to Holly. I’m professional archaeologist. I get WOW from other people every time I tell my profession, only I don’t feel WOW myself anymore. Actually I stopped feeling that in quite early stage in my studies, but I was determined not to quit because it was my childhood dream and I make it true no matter what! I just bit me teeth together and pushed forward. Now in my later thirties I have come to terms after a long period of banging my head on a brick wall and trying to make that my dream work the way I initially thought it’d be. I had my ‘period of mourning’, because giving up that dream wasn’t easy at all, and decided that it’s time to me to move forward and leave archaeology behind. It was like one of my friend said ‘nice hobby, but shitty profession’. I don’t regret it though, because it taught me a lot about people (past and present), the history I still love, and surviving with small and irregular income. I’m now moving towards to my other long term dream that is writing. Gone from slightly mad to completely insane? Maybe, but I’m following my heart. Follow yours!

  • Stephanie M. Sep 12, 2007 @ 23:33

    This and the previous post hit close to home, and came at a time when this topic is at the front of my mind. I could ramble on a lot about the details but my story’s really just the same as the letter writer’s, and Holly’s. I just wanted to chime in and say, you’re not alone, it’s awful, and good luck to all of us trying to find our ways.

  • Susan Sep 12, 2007 @ 19:46

    The way I think of it is this: For the time being, I write fiction because it’s fun, not as a job. I already have a job. I don’t adore it, but it pays the bills. At such a time when writing pays me enough to quit said job, I’ll be happy, but I don’t need that to happen at any particular point in time.

    That does, of course, mean that you have to figure out a career to have before writing, preferably one that involves steady paychecks and enough free time to write, but that’s not as hard as it sounds. Clerical work would do it in a pinch, and tends to give a lot of thinking time. You might have to live on a budget, but having done both, I can attest that it can be just as hard to make ends meet on $50k/year as on $8/hour, if you’re not watching your spending.

  • hollylisle Sep 12, 2007 @ 15:56

    I agree. And nonfiction is a lot of fun to write, if you’re writing about something you enjoy.

  • Katherine Sep 12, 2007 @ 15:30

    Incidentally, writing fiction is not the only, or necessarily the best, way to earn a living by “stringing words together.” Nonfiction in all its many forms probably employs more people, and almost certainly pays them better on average. Much nonfiction is created by full time salaried employees, with all the stability (and corresponding restrictions) that implies. For better or for worse, nonfiction also has at least as much potential to be life-changing, for both the reader and the writer.

    Just something to keep in mind.

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