Thursday, February 22, 2007

Deciding Not To Quit

We had an interesting discussion at Wyrdsmiths the other night about not quitting writing. It was stimulated in part by a note in the acknowledgments of Carrie Vaughn's Kitty and the Midnight Hour "to Dan Hooker for calling the day after I almost decided to quit." It was something that resonated for me when I read it—I always read acknowledgments—so I brought it up at the meeting.

It was a moment we had all experienced at least once, and I suspect that almost any writer you talk to, no matter how well published, will be able to tell you about that moment. Maybe five times I've felt frustrated and depressed enough about the whole writing gig to seriously contemplate finding something else to do, but I've had only one true deciding not to quit moment.

It came in January 2005 right after a Wyrdsmiths meeting. At that point I had a good agent who believed in my work, more than 20 short stories either in print or forthcoming, 2 novels in the trunk and 5 out with various editors none of which had sold. I was also having major family stress and had seen a three book hard/soft deal that was over three years in the making fall apart at the last possible moment. That had happened a couple of months earlier and several editors had passed on the books involved since.

I was depressed, not clinically, but damn close, and I felt like 15 years of hard work had officially gone to hell. But worse, far far worse, I wasn't enjoying writing. I was doing it—I can't not—but I wasn't taking the joy from it that I always had. For perspective, I've worked at art or entertainment my entire conscious life. I pursued theater in serious way from ages 11-22. When I was 23 I switched to writing and found the second great love of my life (my wife Laura is the first) and I never looked back. Not until January 2005.

So came, the meeting that sent me over the edge. The trigger doesn't matter. It wasn't about that, it was about me and writing. I drove home (an hour) getting more and more down the whole way. When I got there I went off to stare at the ceiling. For probably three hours I did nothing but think about how something I had loved and pursued for years had come to naught and how I just wasn't feeling the joy of it anymore. And I tried to figure out what else I could possibly do with my time—I was writing full time. And the answer was nothing. Nothing. There wasn't anything else that appealed to me half so much.

I don't know what I'd have done if something else had occurred to me. And the fact that nothing did was totally bleak at the time, because I felt like the only thing I wanted to do was going nowhere and would continue to go nowhere. But in retrospect it was a powerful moment. I had come to place where I realized that writing wasn't just something I did that I could walk away from. It was who I was down in the bedrock, and I would keep at it no matter what.

The next day I got up and wrote, though I didn't much enjoy it. And the next day. And the day after that. And somewhere in there I started to love the work again, and then WebMage sold and Cybermancy. In the last year and a half I've written three novels that I am damn proud of, one of which is hands down the best work I've ever done. And now, two years on, I'm finally loving writing with same joy and deep passion that I found when I first started.

Deciding not to quit was one of the best decisions I've ever made and one of the hardest. If you've been there, you know what I mean and I'd love to hear about it.


lydamorehouse said...

I remember the day I decided not to quit.

It’s funny you should bring this up because I think it relates a lot to the conversation about being “broken” (which I put in quotes because I don’t like that word, nor do I want to give it any power. I actually started a post of my own about how I think language – but particularly labels – have power over us if we let them, but that’s OT and for another day.)

The day I decided not to quit came at a similar place. I had an agent, my book was being shopped around , and I was struggling to write another novel… or anything. A few days after hearing that my novel, which was loved by a junior editor, had been rejected by the senior, I hit bottom. I just didn’t know if I could take the roller coaster ride any more.

Also, at the time, no one that I _really_ knew had ever done it – gone over the transom. I started to disbelieve it was even possible to rise up from the ranks, as it were. It all seemed like a fairy tale that happened to Other people.

Like you, I realized there really wasn’t anything for it. I couldn’t not write.

Of course, I nearly hit bottom again here at the beginning of my career, but that was after I’d suffered an intense personal loss and I was so NOT going to let the bastards win. Not the same moment at all. Besides, that latter moment wasn’t about me choosing not to write any more, but about refusing to let my writing career die on the vine.

Douglas Hulick said...

I haven't made that decision yet. I think it is, in part, because I CAN "not write." I've taken a couple of years off, and if anything, felt less stress, less anxiety and less guilt than I do when I am writing. That was a damn scary moment, let me tell you - to know that you could decide not do the thing you have always wanted to do, and get on just fine with your life. It's like standing on the edge of a cliff with a parachute on your back: I could jump and know I'd be fine - but would I miss the view afterwards?

Of course, I am coming from a different position than Lyda and Kelly in that I have been slogging along with the same piece forever (my fault, no one else's). The joy has mostly gone out of it for me, but I still plug away because it IS good, it IS publishable, and damn it, I'm not going to shove it in a drawer after all this! Maybe not the healthiest or noblest reasons, but I'm nothing if not stubborn.

I still enjoy the process of creating, of meeting new people in my head and seeing what they end up doing. And part of me feels that if I did stop writing, just about anything else I did would end up feeling like it was less permanent, less than what I had hoped for. But would my psyche be crushed, would I feel less of a person? I don't know. Maybe I'm just not willing to find out.

Kelly Swails said...

I've had one such moment, not too terribly long ago. This is how I make decisions: I pretend in my head I've made the decision (in this case, not to write anymore) and I gauge how I feel. When I "made" the decision not to write, I felt panicky and a little feverish, so I knew it wasn't the right choice for me.

Sometimes I get a little depressed and angsty about rejections or my "lack of talent" ... but it's nothing that more writing and hard liquor can't fix. Not necessarily in that order.

Mostly it's that feeling of writing an awesome sentence or fleshing out a great character or getting a little giddy when a reader says "hey, this story really spoke to me" that keeps me going. Publishing is obviously the goal, but it's the little moments that help push me towards it.

Jen said...

Funny, I just went the other way around the same time. A writer pretty much all of my life (I started at age 3), when the chronic illness hit, it took away the ability to write the material I wanted to write. After 7.5 years and no real improvement, I'm still working the process of facing the harsh reality that it's probably a permanent condition -- and even if it's not, I have to start arranging my life as though it were else the years just keep slipping by in a bevy of maybe tomorrows. It's devastating.

The upside of it is that by the time I got sick I'd already become friendly with a short list of published authors, and the things they were telling me about publishing and marketing were giving me a fairly major anxiety disorder anyway. I'm an introvert with PTSD who doesn't like people very much, so the only approach to "authorhood" that was going to work for me was the Salinger-Pynchon approach, and honestly, I'm not sure I was good enough for that. ;)

I will always write, though. You nailed that in the post: a lotta writers just gotta write. Each for our own reasons, I think, but for many it's not really much of an optional thing.

Kelly McCullough said...

Lyda, thanks for adding your story. Life is just a punch in the gut sometimes and not letting the bastards win can make for serious motivation.

Doug, ditto on the thanks, and it is a damn good book. I've read it and I want to see it sell.

Kelly X, thanks. That's a cool descision process. I think that being a writer automatically means a little bit of agnst and depression on the rejections front. I'm generally a happy person and happier when I'm writing, but man this business has really kicked my ass a few times.

Jen, thanks and oy. And whether you ever write fiction or not, you're a damn fine writer. Your blog essays, particularly the funny ones are outstanding. You've had me laughing aloud any number of times and sharing the material with Laura. I'm always glad to see you've posted something new.

Shawn Enderlin said...

I recently had that moment. I've been working on my book for several years. A few people have seen it and have been really encouraging, but I never really put it 'out there' until I went to a local (MN) writers group last fall.

Long story short, they wanted to see the beginning chapters. Those chapters are several years old and not at all representative of my writing today. As a result, while there were a couple of encouraging comments they mostly ripped apart my work. It was devastating. Add that to a year where my job had been monopolizing my life and I hadn't made any significant progress in months and yes, I did quit.

Now I have a new job, I'm writing again and I've discovered that I can't truly quit. This thing is in my blood and it won't go away! I still have motivation problems, self doubt, yada, yada, but I now know I'm in this for the long haul - wherever that might take me.

Kelly McCullough said...

Shawn, thanks for stopping by and sharing that.