“Kids, you tried your best, and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.” – Homer Simpson.
It’s a new year, and that means new goals, new plans, and new resolutions. It’s a time for fresh starts, rededications, and the Rocky soundtrack on a constant loop. It’s also the time of year when everyone writes a blog post about the importance of sticking to your guns and never, ever quitting.
This is not that kind of a blog post. I’m just warning you up front.
I’ve seen several people I know struggle greatly with writing over the years, and not the usual “I’ve hit a plot hole and I can’t get up!” sort of struggle. I’m talking about friends who seem to be at an existential crossroads of sorts; who aren’t sure if they have the strength or will to ever write anything again; who want to set fire to their laptops and be done with it all.
Maybe you’re at a similar crossroads with your own writing. Maybe it’s because you just got your fiftieth rejection letter. Or your hundredth. Maybe the thought of having to do one more bit of self promotion gives you stress hives. Maybe you discovered a book on the bookstore shelf that has the exact plot you’ve been wrestling with for the past two years. Maybe it’s because you’re just tired and burned out. However you ended up at these crossroads, know that you’re not alone. Every writer ends up here at least once in his or her career. The question is: what to do about it?
Here’s my first suggestion: Quit.
No, I’m serious. If you just can’t take it anymore, then quit. Please note that I am not referring here to simple writer’s block, or the rough days where nothing seems to be coming together, such as are common to all writers. But if writing has lost all joy for you; if it is affecting your emotional or physical health, or negatively impacting your personal relationships with family and friends; if writing has become, in the words of Chuck Wendig, “an endless Sisyphean misery,” then why on earth are you still doing it?
You have to ask yourself hard questions: Is this really for me? Is this really what I want? I can’t answer those questions for you, nor would I ever try. I’m not saying that every moment of writing should be sunshine, sparkles, and dancing unicorns. I don’t know any writer who experiences that all the time. Writing—or any worthwhile creative endeavor, for that matter—should be a struggle, and should stretch you and challenge you. But for heaven’s sakes: if you’re not experiencing any enjoyment whatsoever from writing, isn’t that telling you something?
Okay, I hear the sounds of angry mobs sharpening pitchforks and lighting torches out there. You’re upset with my first suggestion to quit. That’s good. That means there’s still a spark inside you that won’t let you give up just yet. For you folks, here’s my second suggestion, taken from a quote from Rick Walton: “Quit. But if you can’t, then do the work.”
Think about why you started writing in the first place. What led you to do it? Was it a school assignment that awoke something inside you didn’t even know was there, or have you always felt compelled to tell stories? Think about how it felt when you wrote your first story, about the thrill that came from typing ‘THE END’ and knowing that this story was all yours. Think about the first time you were brave enough to let someone else read your writing, and they actually liked it!
Now think about never writing again. How does that feel? If it makes you dig in your heels and put up your dukes and want to fight me for merely suggesting it, then it means you’re still in this. But it means you’ve got some work to do. It means taking yourself seriously enough to actively and consciously arrange your time to write on a regular basis. It means working through that plot problem that has been kicking your trash for the past three months by any means necessary. It means finishing that book, that chapter, that scene, that paragraph, or that sentence. It means sitting down and opening a blank file and writing “Chapter One.” And it means doing it today.
Don’t worry that your first draft will suck. Your first draft is supposed to suck. That is its whole job. Your job is to make that first draft exist. Your job is to get the words out of you and down on the paper. There is time to fix them up, rearrange them, and make them look all sparkly later. Just get it done. You know you can’t quit, so go do the work.
A big part of doing the work is to keep the proper perspective. Too many writers focus too much on this nebulous, ever shifting goalpost called “success.” This skewed line of thinking reduces success to a binary choice between all or nothing, as if to say that anything less than being the next Stephen King or JK Rowling equals abject failure.
Emily King said it well: “Success is a dangling carrot that motivates us to work harder and persist, no matter where we are on our personal journey. Fame. Fortune. Rubbing elbows with important people. Notoriety. Independence, creative or financial. One person’s perspective on what success looks like will change to the next, and our interpretation will change as we taste nibbles of it. In essence, success is something we chase, not something we achieve.”
My advice is to focus on SATISFACTION, not success. Success can come quickly, and be taken away just as quickly. It doesn’t mean you should stop chasing your dreams and goals, but it does mean that you can—and should—learn to be grateful for where you are. Don’t define yourself based on something that hasn’t happened yet. Give yourself credit for what you’ve already accomplished, which is likely more than you realize.
J. Scott Savage also had wise words on the subject: “Am I against making money by selling what we write? Heck no! Make as much as you can. You have earned every dime. What I am against, is taking an art, a talent, something that blesses your life and the lives of those your share it with, and turning it into a job that is only worthwhile if it makes lots of money. I am against seeing people asking if they should give up a God-given talent that brings them joy, (even when it is very hard), because enough other people didn’t buy their work.”
I echo those words. I believe in God, and I believe He gives us talents to help us grow and develop in this life. Think of how many people in this world have a talent for music. How many of them are superstars, with all the fame and fortune, and what does that mean for the rest of us? Does that mean God totally screwed up when He gave me a love of music? Am I somehow a failure in life, and displeasing Him just because I only play my guitar for fun, and I’ve never played Carnegie Hall? Not hardly.
It’s the same with my writing. Don’t get me wrong: getting paid for what you write is awesome, and I highly recommend it. But the NYT bestseller list is not the only way to honor the talents you have been given. Your gifts were given to you for a reason. Your voice is needed. Only you can tell your story the way you can. That’s not something to walk away from lightly.
Now, if you’re still feeling burned out, here’s my final suggestion: Quit. But just for a little bit. Everyone gets burned out from time to time, and it can be healthy to take a little break now and then. You’re still a REAL WRITER even if you’re not writing every single day. Take a sabbatical and do something completely different. Travel. Try a new hobby. Take a class. Go to a writing conference. Do something that will jump-start your brain and get you back on track.
This new year, resolve to quit feeling sorry for yourself. Resolve to quit beating yourself up. Resolve to quit listening to those negative voices telling you that you can’t do it. Resolve to quit giving up, and get back to work.
Dennis Gaunt has worked as a slushpile reader for Deseret Book and Shadow Mountain publishers since 2000. All those years of reading other people’s words inspired him to take a crack at writing himself. His first book, Bad Guys of the Book of Mormon, was published in 2011, and he has since published other books and magazine articles in the LDS market, and has even recorded talks on CD for LDS youth and young adults.
Though primarily a non-fiction writer (for now), he loves reading and talking about what makes great fiction stories work. His years of wading through the slushpile from the other side have given him a unique perspective on the writing and publishing processes, and he’s excited to be a part of Thinking Through Our Fingers.