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Basically, this writer has withdrawn their latest novel from consideration by an agent (and, really, a publisher) and is in essence saying, “I relinquish my career.”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.