Columns > Published on April 18th, 2013

Notes from the Drunken Editor: Be Unhinged! or, Why You Really Shouldn't Give Up

I'm pretty democratic about the things I find intolerably tacky: every political position has its stupid catch phrases and clichés, every social group its stereotypes, and every artistic genre its aspects just waiting for someone to exploit in parody.

My cynicism is not some untouchable virtue. It actually hurts me more than it helps. Being skeptical is one thing. Cynicism involves actually thinking ill of people, and it's not consistently useful in the long run. I see inspirational pictures being shared around on Facebook with misattributed quotes — often with a picture of Einstein or Martin Luther King, Jr — and I roll my eyes. I actually roll them. Why? Because in my autopilot everyday mode, I respond to inspirational quotes by despising them, their lack of originality, their "hey, everything's gonna be cool" message, their faintly spiritual but finally empty approaches to inspiring whoever happens to be at the computer.

One of the motivational clichés I've always loved to hate was "Never give up," and the hundred thousand variations on those little stupid words. It always felt meaningless, arbitrary. Like other repeat offenders, "Never give up" makes me think of some 60-year-old lady listening to meditation exercises on a CD she ordered online before she heads to school to teach a group of children about self-esteem. Follow your dreams! Take it easy! Be yourself! All reasonable advice, except that it crushes more people than it saves. Satan's cup overfloweth with tears of bitter motivational seminar attendees.

"Never give up" makes me think of some 60-year-old lady listening to meditation exercises on a CD she ordered online before she heads to school to teach a group of children about self-esteem. 

But here's a quiz: How many people do you know who don't ever give up? I don't mean people who won't take no for an answer. I mean those rare people who you know would truly never give up, in the most heroic sense, no matter how discouraging the feedback from others, no matter how violently they are attacked, no matter how great the pressure to stop gets from an otherwise indifferent industry?

I know very few people like that.

And that's their great advantage, when you stop focusing on how beautiful it is that someone could be so indomitable. When you know you're up against someone who will never give up, you are likely to fear them. Given the choice between fighting a Mike Tyson with a sense of societally-helpful self-control and a Mike Tyson who, once provoked, wouldn't stop until his enemy was dead, I would much prefer to fight the former. The difference is not in his strength. It's that I feel safer fighting someone who prefers not going to jail.

When someone doesn't stop just because you tell them to, they become genuinely terrifying. There are insane ways of refusing to stop — that's why there are laws and the judicial system, to keep certain behaviors in check one way or another. Beyond that, there are milder forms of saying no, like not giving in to social pressures: absolutely refusing to drink a single glass of alcohol, ever, on any date or social event. Or going to the gym every single day without exception, preferably before taking your bike to work in a nearby city. It's unnerving to discover you can't convince someone to do something they don't want to, even when it doesn't seem that bad. Couldn't they lighten up? Oh… apparently they don't intend to lighten up. Ever.

If you haven't read Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, I suggest that you do, because it's a great story, and because the protagonist engages in a kind of inverted refusal to give up. Bartleby "would prefer not to" do what he's asked, and, well, he just doesn't like the idea of budging. He won't budge. What do you do when you simply get a flat-out "Haha, no thanks" from someone you've asked to do something over and over?

Most of us are not used to it. We get freaked out by someone adopting that kind of attitude.

For someone who writes, refusing absolutely to give up can be a glorious thing. You may come across as unhinged, or obsessed, or deluded. But it's a tactical advantage. Over time, it means you can stop seeing people's raised eyebrows when you say you want to be left alone. It means you'll have created the habit of turning down petty requests when you are trying to do your crazy writing thing.

What you'll hear, officially, is that writing is a lonely business. You've got to sit down for hours and let the words flow. You have to "bleed" the words out. And then, poor you, it's time to edit and re-edit. And then scrap it all and start again. Nobody in the world has it worse than a writer. And then the qualification at the end, something like "But I wouldn't give it up for the world." Writers, of all people, should be better at humblebragging.

Of course, this official version glorifies the writer's lifestyle in exactly the moments that sound the most painful: the persevering, the fighting against the odds, the days of isolation, the whole schtick about being led by an unfaltering vision. When you put it that way, it sounds like pretty heroic behavior, and I'm sure that suits the frustrated writer. The trick is to use this as more than simple therapy on those days when nothing's going right. Make it a condition for the rest.

If you decide not to give up once, that's great. But stick at it long enough and you'll encounter regular frustrations. The decision never to give up is, socially at least, unreasonable, and you'll know you're doing it right when people start complaining that you've "changed".

You'll find yourself enjoying it again, and the enjoyment bit is surprisingly easy to forget when you're busy crying out for attention. You'll get a better understanding of your own writing habits.

When you make the decision to stop freaking out about whether it's going right or wrong, and you put that decision into practice, you get stronger. You are better off than many of the other writers you know.

Persevering is just part of learning any craft. It's a requirement. It has to be built into the understanding a writer has of what he or she is doing. But that's it. It doesn't mean you can overcompensate by only persevering as long as you get to moan, scream and tweet about how lonely and frustrating it it so be a writer.

Never giving up means never letting anybody tell you that you shouldn't be a writer. Like a goof, I once said the equivalent of "you suck" to a guy online, in a less brutal way. His stories were terrible and he'd sent me several of them over a couple of years. I finally said something like, "You should keep writing, but don't focus on making money from this. It's not likely to help you right now and I really don't see it happening yet." And the bastard actually quit writing a few weeks later. I doubt it was solely because of me, though yes, I regret not having made myself clearer at the time. Still, I was surprised at how quickly my respect for him disappeared. I'd always admired the way he just kept at it, no matter how poor the results. He could have turned out much better over time, but my discouraging comment must have added to all the insecurities he was fighting. Look, I'm irrational, you're irrational, we're all unpredictable, delicate creatures, sure, but the best kind of irrational is the kind that doesn't let mundane, distracted opinions interfere with the higher suffering that comes with creating.

Also, never giving up means never letting a rejection mean more than it does. It's insufferable and we all experience it: we take a risk and we get rejected by people we want to impress. When that rejection comes from an editor, it can hurt. But it doesn't make you a terrible person when you've been rejected twenty times in a row. Maybe it means you're a terrible writer, but, hey, see above. It's not a logical reason to give up. At best it's a practical justification, or a cowardly excuse.

And if you're a hero-worshipper, never let someone else's word be absolutely sacred. If you were to send your favorite living author your story, and she responded with unexpectedly harsh and lengthy criticism, would that make you give up? Why? What would it take to make you change your mind completely about your writing in a single moment? It's an interesting thought experiment.

It should take the great William Carlos Williams sending you a letter saying "You should quit" to make you actually quit. And that's only because William Carlos Williams was, professionally, a doctor, and he'd have to be telling you to quit writing for your own health. And even then...

About the author

Phil Jourdan is a writer, musician and distinctly unenlightened person. He is structural editor at Angry Robot, and a co-founder of Repeater Books and Litreactor. He splits his time between the UK and Argentina.

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