How Do You Know When Your Writing Career Is Over?
This dark question is one I’m willing to bet most of us have asked ourselves at least once, if not much more regularly. I’m raising it here not to be discouraging. In fact, my motive is quite the opposite. This column is meant to be more of a pep talk, believe it or not. The only folks who will come away from this column too depressed to move are those who have been lying to themselves for a very long time. For them, it should serve as a wake up call, a clock radio of conscience that snaps them into self-awareness with a news bulletin: “You were never a writer to begin with, so you have no career to end.”
Therefore, in order to answer the titular question, you must first ask yourself, "Am I a writer?"
There’s nothing worse than a dishonest writer. No, of course I’m not talking about fiction writers, who tell fantastic lies for the sake of art. I mean the writer/poseur, the kind of person who pretends to be a great but as-yet-undiscovered artiste but never, and I mean never, manages to get anything down on paper. Or computer screen. Or note cards. (Vladimir Nabokov wrote all of his novels longhand on note cards. Hey, it worked for him.) I mean the sort of person who likes the sound of him- or herself saying “I’m a writer” at parties but in fact never gets around to doing the hard work of putting words together in a way that feels right, or possibly merely not-horrible. This hard work may include but is not limited to sweating a lot and crying.
These people give the rest of us a bad name. All it takes is one liar to ruin many reputations.
If you are one of those people, stop reading this column right now. You will learn nothing from it — nothing except that you are contemptible and deserve to be publicly shamed.
If, however, you are one of the many people who simply worries about falling into that miserable category, give yourself a bracing slap on the face, vow to write at least one good paragraph today or tomorrow, keep the vow — and no, it doesn’t have to be perfect or even good — and consider yourself a real writer.
To Have a Writing Career, All You Need To Do Is Write
No, you don’t have to be published. No, you don’t have to make a lot of money or even any money from your writing. Nobody needs to know your name. All you have to do is write — and write consistently. It helps if you have a scheduled writing time every day, but even that’s not as important as spending at least half an hour in a chair doing nothing but thinking about what word comes next.
Procrastination is to writers what sniffles are to toddlers. It goes with the territory. Try to avoid it, but don’t beat yourself up if you succumb. Sometimes you just have to wash down the entire kitchen before you can clear your mind enough to find the right words to write. One of my college roommates had that problem; I loved it when he had a paper due, because it meant that an immaculate kitchen would be ours by midnight. I also used to know someone who moved into a house that had the peculiar feature of an entirely tiled basement — walls and floors, of course, but ceilings, too. The laundry room. Closets even. Turns out that the previous owner was a writer who couldn’t write unless and until he had completely tiled a new surface. But he eventually got down to writing, and that’s the only thing that matters.
So you should be feeling pretty good about yourself now, right? So what if you haven’t been published yet! So what if nobody has paid for your work! You write consistently, and you don’t lie about it. You’re a writer!
Rejection letters – even stacks of them – are not a reason to quit
Most of us have gotten them. They’re extremely unpleasant and demoralizing. They bring up lots of crap that has nothing to do with writing but makes you feel like shit anyway. But they are not a reason to quit writing.
Sometimes they’re cruel. They’re still not a reason to quit writing. My own personal worst was the letter my agent received from an editor at a very prestigious publishing house in response to a proposal I'd written. It said, and I quote, “I agree that a biography of Billy Wilder is needed, but Ed Sikov has neither the wit nor the talent to write it.” Yes, I cried.
Fortunately, another editor at an almost-as-prestigious publisher disagreed with that assessment, and I wrote and published the book. When it came out – all 675 pages of it – I was tempted to send one to the editor who had rejected my proposal with a typewritten letter saying simply “Suck this. (Dictated but not read)” with a typewritten signature.
My point is this: everyone gets rejected at some point or other. It hurts like hell, but rejection letters are not in and of themselves a reason to quit writing. They're just part of doing business.
Now The Axe Must Fall
I don’t have the statistics to back this up, but I’m all but certain that most writers quit writing at some point before they die. This is one way of knowing that your writing career is over. It has nothing to do with the number of rejection letters you have saved in that special storage box you’ve labelled “Hell.” It doesn’t have to do with the amount of time you take off to have a kid, or start a new day job, or even the time you suspend your writing for a while because some asshole critic wrote something mean about you or your work.
It has only to do with your decision to quit for good. When you quit writing, your career is over. It's like dying, only you're still alive.
Or maybe it isn’t like dying. Maybe you just have to change. What’s that quote from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America?
How do people change?... God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in. He grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to evade his grasp but he squeezes hard. He insists. He pulls and pulls till all your innards are yanked out - and the pain! We can't even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It's up to you to do the stitching…. That’s how people change.
In 2008, at the age of 51, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. I already knew something was very wrong because every afternoon I’d slip into a fog from which I couldn’t extract myself. People tend to think of Parkinson's as a movement disorder — tremors, stiffness, freezing in place.... All of those things happen with Parkinson's, but it's more than a movement disorder; it's a brain disease. Neurologists used to treat things like apathy and anxiety and depression as Parkinson's side effects; now they treat them as symptoms. Memory problems are also common.
The book I was writing at the time was a film studies textbook, for which I had a contract and a so-so advance. A few months before the diagnosis, I’d had no choice but to take some time off from writing the book because I simply couldn’t think clearly. The brain fog was intense, and I just couldn't find my way out of it. When I went back to my textbook-in-progress, I was shocked to discover three chapters I could not remember writing. I deduced that they were mine only because a) they were written in my style, and b) they were on my computer, which nobody else uses. No one else could have written them, so they had to be mine. The Parkinson’s diagnosis at least made sense of my failing memory. Film Studies: An Introduction was likely to be my final book.
But then an opportunity came my way: I would write an “as told to” book by the hilarious daughter of an exceptionally successful American playwright. Most of the book would be a matter of organizing notes and transcribing interviews, both of which I could certainly do. I was up for it, the playwright’s daughter was up for it, my agent was up for it…. The trouble was, no publishers were up for it. The proposal died a hard death. The youngsters in the marketing departments had no idea who the playwright was. So my career died a second time.
But I didn’t. I have to write. I have defined myself as a writer since I wrote my first film review back in 1983. If I stopped writing completely I wouldn’t be me any more. So I looked around and found some places to publish short things — LitReactor is one of them. Gay City News in New York City is another. (I write the media column.) I know my brain can’t keep the contents of a whole book in it any more — and really, that’s what you have to do to write a book — but that doesn’t mean I can’t write anything. And now I've just gotten word that the textbook's publisher wants to put out a second edition. I think I can do it. So I will.
So we can add two more ways of determining that your writing career is over:
1. You are told you have six months to live, and you opt to use them in some way other than to finally finish that novel.
2. You get run over by a bus and killed instantly. (This one is a posthumous realization, I know. Forgive me.)
A Little Help From Your Friends
After my diagnosis, seemingly everyone I knew was convinced that he or she held the key to my being able to continue writing: voice-recognition software! If I heard that suggestion once I heard it a hundred times. The fact that I didn’t (and still don’t) need it — the fact that I can still type and type fast — made it possible for me to nod sweetly and totally ignore the advice. But if someday I lose the ability to type, I may decide to quit writing altogether. I just don’t see how I could adapt to an entirely new way of composing words. This 60-year-old dog may not be able to learn a new trick. Then again, I might rather try to learn an entirely new way of getting words onto the screen than quit completely and lose my identity in the process. I don't have to worry about it yet, so I don't.
But how do you know when it’s over? I mean, really over?
There may come a time when you just can't do it anymore. When nothing has worked out for years. When you say to yourself, "Enough." It's as simple as that. When you’ve pounded your head against the wall so long that there are bloody marks on it. When the thought of quitting makes you feel a sense of profound relief.
As long as the idea of not writing makes you feel sick, you should – you must – continue. Only when it makes you feel a sense of inner peace can you allow yourself to quit. And if, after a certain time, you feel yourself get the itch again, well, you can always head back to your computer (or lined paper, or note cards) and pick up where you left off. Or start something new. It's never really over.
Have you ever considered quitting? Tell us about it. Your story may just resonate with someone and help put them back on track.
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