Giving In or Giving Up?

I’m deeply upset this morning because of something that happened, really, more than a week ago. Which is to say, a friend who is a published novelist–an excellent writer–basically decided to pack it in. It didn’t really register, in part because I’ve been so busy, until the subject came up in another context.

Basically, this writer has withdrawn their latest novel from consideration by an agent (and, really, a publisher) and is in essence saying, “I relinquish my career.” This is not exactly the same as giving up. It is, instead, giving in. I say this because a career is something that requires constant maintenance and attention, so when you acknowledge the prevailing inertia and simply stop doing the things required to have a career, it is more like giving in than giving up.

The fact is that although a fair percentage of writers whine about the hardships they encounter, most whine in the same way one does about cafeteria food while in college: with a hint of secret satisfaction. You’re living the life you want to live, and any deprivation involved is as much a sign and symbol of your choice as is success.

But the writing life is hard, and it is a constant struggle to keep the engine running, to make progress, often in the face of random cruelty, stupidity, incompetence, and indifference.

You get scar tissue. You get paranoid at times. You, above all, make yourself vulnerable in many different ways, even if you don’t show this to many other people. Letting go of all of this can be a relief or a release, even if it means giving in, or, even, giving up something, or part of something, that you love.

For those who weren’t born into the writing life, it’s even tougher. If you grow up writing and you start submitting in your teens, you develop a very thick skin. You are still vulnerable and you are still susceptible to the same frustrations, paranoia, envy, and everything else that comes with the territory. But you tend to bounce back faster.

If you only come to the writing life later, you don’t have that protection. You don’t have that extra layer of resilience, in that context. This also applies to many of what I term “fast risers”–the kind of writer whose first book or first series of stories achieves a kind of critical mass in reviewers’ and/or readers’ minds. Some of these writers, too, have problems later on, if they find themselves in any kind of difficulty. They just aren’t at first mentally prepared for it.

Some of these people could climb mountains or hike thirty miles through thigh-high snow without blinking an eye, but in the context of the writer’s life still do not have the necessary armor.

Anyway, my writer friend needs a break, clearly, and is taking it, but I find it sad and depressing that my friend feels that way, and has been made to feel that way. Although it’s not always easy, the writing life usually does reward extraordinary talent with at least some semblance of success. But it’s difficult to see that success and allow yourself to see that you’ve been successful if enough bullshit comes along with it. (There is not much you can say to a person in this kind of situation. Nothing external will really carry enough weight.)

I really hope this decision is just temporary and that giving in doesn’t mean giving up. The only other thing about a writing career that offers solace is that it’s, in some form, with ups and downs, for as long as you live, if you want it to be.

17 comments on “Giving In or Giving Up?

  1. Kit Reed says:

    Good writing, Jeff, and bon voyage to your friend. Real writers keep writing because… OK. They can’t help it.

    The only way for a writer to keep going is to KEEP GOING. If they don’t like the horse you sent to the show, see whether they’ll like your cat! Old poker axiom: “You’ll never get a hand to play unless you stay at the table.”

  2. Bill Peschel says:

    Good for your friend (or is it “friends,” as you said he withdrew “their” novel?)

    My good wishes are for your friend to find something to do with his life that pleases and engages him.

  3. I sympathize. I’ve had the urge to pack it in myself on occasion. I’ve never done so because 1) I’m too stubborn and B) too lazy to make such an effort.

    It’s a crummy situation, tho. I, too, have an amazingly talented writer friend who more or less threw in the towel a number of years ago, with a smashing novel actually *bought back* from the publisher currently sitting on the shelf.

  4. I don’t know. I don’t plan to quit writing, but have to admit that the system of agents and publishers and watching wrinkles form around my eyes and my hairline retreat to the back of my skull while waiting for manuscripts to be published can be . . . well, a little trying.

    I think that the ‘industry’ should nurture good writers, rather than it being a kind of battle ground where only the strong survive. Because the strong are not necessarily the best writers.

  5. There’s nothing wrong with giving up, either temporarily or permanently. It can be a healthy response. In the 32 years since I’ve been published (short fiction, mostly), I have “given up” several times, often going for years without publishing anything except an occasional newspaper or magazine article. I did not stop writing for myself, though, and during many years, I did not miss getting published because other things were going on in my life. For whatever reason, I came back to writing and publishing regularly at times.

    I think it is more and more common these days that people have many different careers in their lifetimes. And I think it is fine for people to stop when they feel like stopping. For myself, I now write for publication only when I think I have something to say — whereas when I was younger and a lot more ambitious, I wrote in part to “get somewhere” or to get recognition.

    I have a number of friends who had books published, reviewed very nicely, and had decent sales who decided to do other things they found more interesting or less frustrating.

    What would you say to a friend who decided to give up her dental practice or his real estate agency?

    Writing is a fine hobby.

  6. Jess Nevins says:

    God knows I empathize with your friend. Life sucks and requires a hardhat, of course, and the life of a writer is even hard, but there are some in this field that seem to take pleasure in making writers lives harder than necessary.

  7. Gary Wassner says:

    Hey Jeff.

    Sad, I agree. But not unexpected in today’s market. You’re one of the fortunate ones. Not that you don’t deserve it. Still you’re fortunate. Many authors do the same things and don’t get the recognition or the agents or the publishers that they need to validate themselves and keep going. It’s nice to believe that all good books get recognized at some point. But that’s not true. Many good books never make it to the shelves for various and often uncontrollable reasons. Poor choices we may make, sometimes out of desperation. Bad choices we may make, sometimes because we don’t know any better.

    I feel terrible for your friend. It scares me to think about it and my feathers aren’t easily ruffled. But I understand it, and it has nothing to do with the love of writing. We can all get worn out after a while. If we’re blessed enough to get the recognition we hope to get, it too can be short lived. And still we need to build a career that outlasts eacy individual book.

    Tough decisions. Tough times.

  8. Fortunate? Yeah, just depends on how long that lasts. Nothing’s that permanent, especially if you don’t write the same thing twice. One thing that also happens, I think, is that people begin to take writers for granted, not realizing they could be careerless in just a couple of years.


  9. Kit Reed says:

    re: careerless. Frpm the Authors League Fund board (we loans small $$$ to writers in emergencies) I can tell you that the hell of it is that, nobody has enough money to self-insure (health) or put any away for old age because everybody survives on the hope that the next one will be the BIG score and then they can afford to take care of themselves.

  10. Rick Klaw says:

    If I had a nickel for every writer I’ve know that has said they were packing it in for good and then returned… well, let’s just say you’d be talking to my assistant at the moment… ;)

  11. Wow, that’s rough. I hope they come back to it. Some times a time-out to mentally regroup is a good thing.

  12. Linda Stamberger says:

    Its the money, man. We as writers need to make a living just like everyone else in the
    “real world,” a world that thinks we are all dreamers. I think that’s why a lot of writers become college professors, status and a regular paycheck. With the writer’s strike, the powers to be and the layman now realize writers are needed to keep the machine rolling, be it Hollywood, decent articles or books. Without us, they are up a creek without a paddle. Hopefully things will start to change, and the market won’t be so limited to just what the “suits” think is marketable. Though there is nothing wrong writing marketable materials, it would be nice if more individual stylings were allowed to shine through, and not pidgeon-holed into a marketable commodity.

  13. Daniel says:

    Great quality stuff.

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