Have you ever wanted to just give up?

I got an e-mail with that title this morning—one of those deep, thought-provoking ones that hit where I happen to be right now. I’m posting most of the e-mail, though anonymously, because it offered some important questions and some hard-reached conclusions. And I’m going to reprint my reply in full, because I think the subject deserves a wider audience.

First, from the writer:

You know, reading over the material that you’ve written in fiction, and over the mass amount of content you’ve given for free to all the writers of the world, and all the would-be writers more, I have to wonder: Have you ever seriously considered doing anything else? [snipped]—and as I was reading snips and stories, I realized just how far I have to go, and how much I’ve lost in my inaction.

The problem is that I have never really attempted anything like this, and am young enough that I can change whatever I like about me and try to become something more practical. But this is all I ever dreamed of; but the slush piles of the world are strong evidence that dreams are not enough. The penalty is that if I give up before the race begins–it’s cowardice, and that’s not something I can easily forgive in anyone. But the actual likelihood of “making it” in a luxury business where people are fickle and jump from one book to another without much care, and where some people buy their books based on the cover and little else–there’s only so small a chance that it would happen.

I read your article on the likelihood of getting published, but the odds do not add up. Whereas the odds of a particular sperm cell making it are millions-to-one, the likelihood that any one of them will make it is very great. [Here I have to disagee. Most sperm are never published. But most eggs—even ones where one sperm made it—are never published, either. Only one egg a month gets to submit, and that one is almost always rejected. Think of the fertilized ones that wash out as the ones that made it through the slush pile but were shot down by the editor.—Holly] I dunno. It seems something like that happens with the publishing world. Magazines get many hundred submissions in a month–so it’s guaranteed that they will get one. But which one? Most likely, and easily, the answer is “NOT YOURS”.

Witnessing all the uniqueness and originality on the FM boards reminds me precisely how much competition is out there waiting for me; but then, if they thought as negatively as I did and didn’t bother submitting, I’d hold them personally accountable for it, as a sin against fiction-lovers. But then, perhaps most of us DO think this way, and that’s why the not-so-good authors get published–persistence over talent, something like that.

Forgive me, but I could think of none else who might satisfactorily answer this question.

Like I said, this e-mail hit me where I live right now, because there’s a part of me right now that, frankly, just wants to give up. My response:

Hi, [name withheld]

Have I ever just wanted to give up? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. You are absolutely right—the competition is fierce, the rewards are sometimes negligible and frequently nonexistent, the frustrations are unbelievable (think HAWKSPAR and the fight I’m still having with that book), and honestly, I frequently still think of quitting. There’s no guarantee of success, even if you’re already in there, even if your name is known, even if you’ve had thirty or more books professionally published. The world is fickle, and writers are a luxury.

If there are other things you can do and be fulfilled and happy, do them. The odds against you as a writer are insane, and careers in regular day jobs are not a struggle every single day. You have the known commodities of paychecks and healthcare, of regular hours, of friends to talk to at work, of work that has elements of the predictable and the replicatable, so that success in the past and the present is a good indicator of success in the future. Writing has none of that.

There is no failure in finding something else that can fulfill you. There is no shame in walking away. There is no great virtue in writing books over pursuing medicine, or sales, or construction work, or whatever it is that’s calling to you. There may be vices inherent in some sorts of work, but there is no virtue inherent in any work. The virtue in any work is in what we bring to it.

I’ve thought a million times of quitting, and I have no doubts I will think about it a million times more. The only difference between me and the many, many writers out there who are as talented as I am—or, let’s be honest, more talented—as clever with plots, and as devoted to characters, but who have NOT made this their career, is that, when faced with rejections, heartbreak, hardships, poor pay, frustration, lies, betrayals, failure, unhappiness, blank pages, impossible editors, one (past) AWOL agent, insurmountable slush piles, sicknesses with no health care, bank accounts with no money, never being able to afford to take my kids on vacation (though they did get to go to a few cons) and everything else that can, does, and will go wrong… I’m the one who didn’t quit.

There may be an element of the crazy in staying in writing.

Holly

There are things I wish I’d added to that letter.

First, there is no cowardice in looking at something, assessing it with a clear eye, and saying, “No, actually I don’t want to do that.”

I have survived in this field because I am an adrenaline junkie with a high tolerance for risk. When I was an RN, I loved, lived, and breathed the constant uncertainty, frequent danger, and intermittent high excitement of the ER. Massive trauma, gunshot wounds, druggies swinging from the ceiling (very literally), heart attacks, anaphalactic shock, attempted suicides, stab wounds, poison ingestion, head injuries, mystery illnesses, people lying about symptoms—I had to know what to do no matter what came through the door, and I had to be right the first time.

My current job is less physically involving, but just as mentally hard. It involves a constant tight-wire act of keeping up my creativity and maintaining my writing quality while getting enough material out there quickly enough to keep enough money coming in to pay bills. Without guarantees, without backups, without any assurances. If you’ve read much of this diary, you’ve read about how often I get shot down. Now, for a minute, be me, and realize that every one of those spin-dives was played out against a dwindling bank account and the ticking clock of bills. There have been times when I haven’t made rent. There have been times when we’ve eaten pasta con olio (spaghetti noodles with an ounce or two of olive oil, a clove of crushed garlic, and a little salt) three or four times in the same week. I consider these risks acceptable.

Money (or not having it) isn’t something that scares me into a life of security. I grew up in a family with no money—lived in rentals, single-wide trailers, and mission housing, shared a bed with my sister, could carry the majority of my possessions in an airplane carry-on, and never met seconds at a dinner table until I was married. I know how to stretch a dollar until it screams, and have had plenty of opportunities in my writing career to do so. However, living thin is a huge issue for a lot of people.

But I, too, have my sticking points.

I wanted to learn how to hang glide, and I’d gone so far as to search for places that gave lessons. But before I went, I considered worst-case scenarios—I’d do it and I’d get killed, and my young kids wouldn’t have a mother anymore. I had responsibilities that were bigger than my thrill-seeking, and people I loved who depended on me for their lives. I decided that the rewards were not worth the risks. So I’ve never been hang-gliding. Maybe when all my kids are grown, I’ll reassess and decide the risk::reward ratio has changed. Probably not. I’ll still have people who love me, and that responsibility to be around for them will almost certainly keep me on the ground. I’m not a coward because I stay there. I’m a mom.

Second, there are no sins of omission against fiction readers. Sins of commission—hell yes. 99% of published books are that. But the world will not be a lesser place if a talented writer does not write a book. The world will not mourn the silence of an unpursued career. There will be other voices. You do not owe the world your book, and neither do I. The world will get along just fine without us.

Third, if writing isn’t your first career, it can be your second, and you may be the better for it. The time to start a second career is when you’re ready to start it. There’s no age limit. A man I knew pretty well once walked away from the sales work he’d done for the better part of his life to become a stained glass artist when he was about forty-five. A woman I knew left her job as a dietician at forty-something, learned to arrange flowers, and opened her own florist shop, which flourished. Writing is my umpteenth job, and my second real career—I was a registered nurse for ten years, was ACLS certified, put all of myself into the work, learned everything I could, made virtue in the work by making my patients matter to me. When I couldn’t give everything, when I no longer had the stamina and the heart it takes to do the job right, I found a second career, this time in writing, at the age of thirty-one. Having been a nurse made me a hell of a lot better as a human being, and it made me a better writer.

And those of you who have visited my exploration of the idea of becoming a publisher know that, at the age of forty-six, I’m considering the idea of a third career. It isn’t a given. There are things about writing that could win me back to the fold of I only want to write, and some of those powerful incentives to stay, especially with Scholastic, are going on right now. But things like the Hawkspar imbroglio are pulling me in the other direction.

The career into which you’re willing to pour the best of everything you have is the career you should pursue. Constant reassessment and second thoughts are part of life, but there should be a core inside you that says, The sacrifices won’t stop me. This is what I want. What I need. What will make me whole.

If the sacrifices will stop you, and you already know in your heart that you’re only going to be willing to bang your head on a brick wall for so long before you quit and go looking for a softer wall, quit now, look for the softer wall today, find the life that will fulfill you, and save yourself a headache.

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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.

9 comments… add one
  • Monica Sep 12, 2007 @ 19:15

    Yes, I’ve considered quitting ’cause the lack of a rainbow pisses me off, and never so seriously as now.

    There is so much to do! After writing 20 or so books and anthologies, why not be free to move on?

    Oh, yeah, the contract.

  • Katherine Sep 12, 2007 @ 11:44

    What Tambo said.

    J.K. Rowling has said (paraphrasing) that, having been in a place where she wasn’t sure where her next meal was coming from, she’s never ever going to complain about the level of success she’s had. Still, she was completely unprepared for the loss of privacy. (Huge, in her case, with people going through her trash and such.) She really misses the days when she could just find a quiet corner of her favorite coffee shop and write in near-anonymity.

    Since many writers are basically solitary people, I would imagine that this is a very common problem. The more successful you are, the more others are likely to want a piece of your time, and the more difficult continuing to write becomes. If you’re J.K. Rowling, you can hire people to help fend off the hordes, but that’s not the case for even most successful pros.

  • PolarBear Sep 11, 2007 @ 19:47

    Thank you, Tambo, for adding your comments. Your voice adds balance to the “gotta go pro now” sentiment that runs rampant (not from Holly, in case anyone thinks that’s what I’m implying).

    I am financially risk aversive. In my case, I’ve always wanted to write. Five years ago, I began to do that — in preparation for being ready to do so full time after I retire. If things go the way I’m planning, I’ll detour to get another academic degree after I retire next year, but writing is a significant part of that goal.

    Thanks to Tambo and things we’ve discussed privately, I see a side of the business where someone might not have to pursue the traditional model presented. And since I don’t have to feed my family with my writing, I’m happy to know there is more than one way to define success in publishing.

    If you’re financially risk averse, that doesn’t mean you need to give up writing, but you’ll be doing it in addition to your “day” job and in odd moments here and there. There is (as Holly and others have repeatedly said) no One True Way to write and be published. Determine the path that will work best for you and your needs and plan accordingly. And, as Tambo notes, consider the effect that success will have upon you and your writing, recognizing it may not be the bed of thornless roses it looks like.

  • tambo Sep 11, 2007 @ 18:34

    I hope it’s okay that I chime in my 2ร‚ยข Holly – if not, please go ahead and delete this. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I ‘went pro’ in the summer of ’03 and if I knew then what I knew now, I’d handle things on my end a lot differently. I have been INCREDIBLY lucky in many, many ways. My editor and agent are both fantastic – from what I can tell that particular combo’s a rarity – a major publsiher picked me up, first book won an award and is still selling well after three years on the shelf, I have fans, made friends in the biz, and by all measurements have had a bump-free ride so far… but (isn’t there always a but?) I have come close to quitting and in fact still consider that possibility every day I look at my computer. I used to love to craft fiction, now… Now it’s my own unique hell.

    Be careful what you wish for is just about the best advice I can give, because you truly might get it. Know WHY you’re seeking publication and figure that out ahead of time. Make plans for ‘What happens if?’ and include good, almost unimaginable things on that ‘what if’ list. Because they’re the ones that blindside you.

    Most folks prepare for the worst. I sure did. Rejection I can handle without a bit of trouble. Success has nearly killed me and every single day I ask if it was worth it.

    Just because everyone says ‘this is the path’ doesn’t mean that’s YOUR path. Figure it out before you start, decide where YOU want to go and WHY, especially the why. Otherwise you might find yourself in a bog from which you can’t escape.

  • NoelFigart Sep 11, 2007 @ 17:43

    Thanks.

    I’m still flogging around the novel I wrote last summer and am trying to keep up the courage to finish That Damned Book (it’s got a title when it’s going well, but right now, it’s That Damned Book).

    Hope Hawkspar resolves to your happy satisfaction.

  • crystallyn Sep 11, 2007 @ 14:34

    Great response Holly. It’s one of the reasons I love your blog…great writing, advice and inspiration.

    To add–just like art, literature is subjective. Some of the most celebrated writers were rejected over and over before they made it. Finding your audience is often a big chunk of the game. If you haven’t seen this NYTimes essay yet, it’s an excellent confidence booster–to try, try and try again because that book may just finally sell. ๐Ÿ™‚

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/09/books/review/Oshinsky-t.html

  • Jess Sep 11, 2007 @ 13:38

    Thank you for sharing that. Having just graduated and working a day job I don’t particularly enjoy, the timing is perfect. I’m not sure I find any comfort in it, but when I got to the end, all I could think of was, I really need to write. I can’t think of anything else that makes me feel the way I do when I’m writing and producing pages (okay, even when I’m not) and that squishes the pragmatist in me saying, “But.”

    Good luck figuring it out for yourself, to whoever sent the original letter.

  • TimK Sep 11, 2007 @ 12:46

    Wow, Holly. What a poignant piece. I agree completely that it’s never too late to make a change in your life. I worked for 14 years as an employee, all for the same company. I was a software developer. But when I got laid off, I discovered how truly special that place was. Two and a half years later, I finally made my own change to software consulting. But what I really love is writing. So I write marketing copy for websites. And I write as much fiction as I can, though I can’t support myself and my family only on fiction income.

    The challenges of being a novelist, and the drives that urge one to this lifestyle, are common to entrepreneurs, as anyone who reads Pam Slims excellent blog Escape from Cubicle Nation can attest. Though she would probably disagree with you that “careers in regular day jobs are not a struggle every single day.” Because they are a struggle if you don’t belong there! That’s what I discovered after I got laid off, and what forced me to become self-employed. Still, the point is that it’s okay to do what makes you happy. Or as Pam Slim puts it, “There is nothing wrong with you.

    -TimK

  • Maxx Sep 11, 2007 @ 10:28

    Thank you for sharing this. Perfect timing for me exactly what I needed to know. I’ll keep going. ๐Ÿ™‚ Hope you will too.

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