Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Somber Subject

A few days ago I got a despairing email from an aspiring writer, or rather a formerly aspiring writer. Unable to make a sale or win a contest, he said he was giving up. Wouldn't try anymore. Was done writing for good. I don't know this person (we've never met) and so I can't judge whether he will stick to this resolve or whether it's a passing mood. But his current despair was real, and palpable, and moving.

When do you decide enough is enough -- about a story, a novel, a career path, an entire career? Yes, we all know the tales of writers who have persevered for years or decades, and finally succeeded in the end. I am acquainted with some of these writers. But what of all the others, the ones who keep on trying decade after decade and never do make a story sale or get an agent or market that novel or whatever else constitutes their personal definition of success? How, as Kenny Rogers sings, do you know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em?

The question is not so different from deciding on other terminations -- quitting your day job, leaving a marriage, closing a business. There's a time when one should go. I just don't, in the case of writing, know what the criteria are for deciding the hand is fully played out. I told my unknown email correspondent that both rejection and despair were routine, which is true, and that he should keep on trying, which may or may not be true. I may have done him a disservice. Unlike Rogers’s Gambler, I sometimes have trouble reading my own hand, let alone anyone else’s.


José Iriarte said...

:( How sad.

I'm thirty-five and still waiting on my first paid sale. But you know what? I like writing. I like creating stories (more than writing, even). Doing all the background work and getting excited and then jumping in. (What I don't like is the whole slush-pile submission thing, and my lack of persistence there is, I know, at least one of my problems.)

I don't always believe that my writing is any good. I'd say half of the time I think I have talent, and half of the time I think my writing is crap. And I don't mean different parts are good and not good. I mean it's all crap.

Sometimes I stop for a substantial period of time, because I'm too busy in some other side of my life, but I always come back to it again because it's rewarding all on its own.

I like having written, too. I know some authors say they don't enjoy the writing, but if they enjoy having done it, that might be just a different way of looking at the same thing.

Yes, there is a time to fold them: it's when all you care about is publication, and that's not happening anyway, and the writing and the having written are not at all rewarding. I wonder, somewhat unsympathetically, I know, why someone who feels that way would be trying to write in the first place. More likely (or maybe just more sympathetically) this person doesn't hate writing and is simply discouraged. I get that. Like I said, I don't always feel like writing. But I don't believe that it's common for someone like that to stop permanently. Something will come along. Some story idea that excites him, or some reason to believe again that *this* time he will succeed. If you belong writing, I think it's awfully hard, if not impossible, to stop permanently. (Short of some awful trauma or something.)

[Sorry for the long rambling post. Sometimes I don't know what I think until after I ramble. Is anybody else like that? *grin* Also, I just finished writing a chapter, so now I have all sorts of energy to read and write noncreatively. I'm starting to figure my position out, though: Creative people can't not have creative outlets. I don't buy it.]

I think deciding to quit writing is fundamentally different from deciding to quit a job, or even a marriage. Because writing is more than a job. It's even more than a commitment. Not to sound to mystical--who the hell am I to sound mystical? Except someone who keeps writing despite a near perfect failure record.--but if you want to write and not just to be famous or whatever, but you know, to be creative, you're going to do it. Or something else creative. You don't stop being creative because it's not a job or a personality, it's a characteristic. Those don't change as readily. It's who you are.

So, okay, I believe he might quit writing, if he has some other creative outlet. I can't draw. I can sing, but I can't play any instruments. I do community theatre, and, unsurprisingly, when I'm doing theatre I write less. But ultimately maybe I write because it's the only thing I can convince myself I'm decent at that fulfills that creative urge.

But I don't believe an artistic person can decide to stop being artistic.

TheOFloinn said...

Sometimes people don't appreciate the sheer hard work of writing: the craft, we might say, rather than the art. Icarus mentioned the desire to have written, as opposed to the desire to write. I think this matters.

There is a story told -- about Jascha Heifitz, iirc. A young violinist came to him and asked to audition. "I need to know if I have what it takes to be a great violinist." He played, but after a few bars, the Great Man shook his head and said, "You do not have the fire."

Saddened, the young man went home, put his violin away and turned to other vocations. Eventually, he became a prosperous merchant. One day, Heifitz was playing in his city and he went to hear him. Visiting the Great Man in his dressing room after, as is the prerogative of successful merchants, he thanked him for turning him away from a fruitless career as a violinist, thanks to which he was now comfortably prosperous. "You told me I did not have the fire after I had played only a few bars."

Heifitz demurred. "I never listen to any of the youngsters that come to me. I tell all of them that."

The man was outraged, and sputtered, "But... but... I might have become a great violinist, if you hadn't turned me away. How could you have known, if you didn't listen to me, that I 'didn't have the fire!'"

Heifitz shrugged. "If you had had the fire, you would not have listened to me."

Luke said...

It's a familiar refrain to tell aspiring writers to "keep trying, keep trying." It's good that you honestly state this may not be good advice. I wonder what percentage of aspiring writers make paid professional sales? I'm sure it's very, very small. The advice to "keep trying, keep trying" may be akin to telling a poor person to keep spending his paycheck on Lotto tickets for that hundred million jackpot.

After doing the submissions thing for a long time, writing a quality story is no guarantee of publication. Not only does your story have to be excellent, but it has to perfectly fit what they happen to be looking for at that particular instant.

Since it takes incredibly hard work to turn out an excellent story in the first place, only to butt your head against the brick wall of rejection with the vast majority of submissions-- why are aspiring writers told to keep trying?

José Iriarte said...

That's a great story, mike! I love it!

Luke, here's a thought that struck me this morning: why does a stranger write Nancy Kress out of the blue to tell her that he's giving up writing? What was his purpose? Why would he think that she would care? I could only think of one reason. He wanted her to tell him to keep writing. He longed for someone to give him some feedback, some sense that, in the midst of anonymous form rejections, there are some actual people on the other side of the curtain. He wanted some writer to tell him there was hope, that real people strive and achieve success, and that those names on the bookshelf aren't just some mythical beings totally unlike him.

I don't think there was any wrong or right advice that Ms. Kress could have given. He's going to keep writing or not, depending on whether or not he longs to create, whether or not he has other outlets for his creativity, and whether or not he has success in those other outlets. What he was really asking for was probably encouragement. Giving it to him wasn't necessary, but it was a kindness.

Steven Francis Murphy said...

Sometimes it isn't skill. Nor is it literary style. Sometimes it isn't even the subject matter.

Sometimes (and on this, I speak for hard experience) it all has to do with the luck of the draw.

Case in point. Nearly made my first fiction sale back in 2004. Rewrote it for the current editor of a major publication and everyone was saying, "This is it! You're going to make it."

My gut, which is rarely wrong, told me other wise.

Sure enough, the Editor who requested the rewrite retired (I sometimes think he was forced out over a number of things that weren't his fault but I have no proof at all other than my gut feeling). New Editor (someone I, by now, do not care for at all) takes command and sends me another rewrite request.

In retrospect, I really don't think it was a rewrite request. I think it was a veiled rejection letter but at the time, even though I disagreed virulently with the suggested changed, I sucked it up, made the changes and sent it back in.

Where the new editor promptly blew it out of the sky.

I didn't make my first sale until January 2007 to Interzone.

Luck of the draw. And my luck has never been terribly good. In any case, I haven't quit merely because one Editor's behavior is reprehensible in my book. Nor have I quit because of the rather depressing state of the short fiction market (in terms of what is selling, which often boggles my mind).

I keep at it. I'm stubborn. That is part of what it takes to be a writer. If you aren't stubborn, then it is probably best to hang up the pen and go drink some beer, maybe take up finger painting.

My two cents.

S. F. Murphy

James A. Ritchie said...

I've always told myself I'd quit writing if it stopped being fun. I think I mean it. But I'm one of those who never had dreams of being a writer. I sat down and wrote my first short story with the sole intention of trying to make some much needed money.

By pure chance, I stumbled across an article wherein Robert Heinlein stated that he wrote his first short story in an effort to pay an overdue bill, and it worked for him, so why not try it myself? I mean, if someone else could do it, I could at least try it.

That first short story did sell, and earned me almost as much money as my crappy day job paid in a month. But in the process of writing that story, I learned that I loved the process of writing, that it was more fun than anything else I'd ever tried, money or no money.

But I can imagine what it's like to go years and years, sometimes decades, without selling a single story. It has to be incredibly discouraging.

I do think too many new writers see writing as a way out of their current circumstances, a way of finding fame, fortune, and fans. They don't really want to write, they want to be well-known writers.
It's the success they want, not the daily love of sitting down and writing because it's a pleasurable, creative activity.

Back when I first started writing, a very well-know writer told me that if I write as much as I should, and submitted as often as I should, and nothing happened within five years, I should probably quit writing and find something else to do. Maybe there's some truth in this.

It's a tough question, and I have no clue what I would have done had that first short story not sold. I suspect I would have quit. Then again, I did find I loved writing for the sake of writing, so who knows?

I guess, for me, it boils down to this. Yes, there definitely is a time to quit, to move on, to look for another creative outlet, or another way of finding fame and fortune. But I don't think there's a time when someone else should tell you to quit. It has to be a personal, soul-searching decision.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Icarus, if you like the =process= of writing, you are a blessed soul. I've talked to a bunch of fictioneers, and all have spun to the antique torque, "I like =having= written..." 'Cause it's torture. I'm just a lyricist, but I know. "What's the word I need? WHAT IS THE WORD???'s gotta rhyme here to? Aw, jeez...this whole deal is giving me the blues..."

But I think Isaac Asimov =liked= writing. Maybe only the Good Doctor.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Creatives do thar thang fo' many reasons. But I think the hope of fame and glory is not the major motivation. Sure, we all want recognition--MADE IT, MA! TOP OF THE WORLD! But is that the true driving engine?

A real writer, or musician, or artist puts the time and effort in because they have no choice. It's who they are.

As Keith Richards, a wastrel and hedonist, sure--but a =true= musician, put it, "If you don't like practicing, you should ask yourself why you want to be a musician."

TheOFloinn said...

Mike Linder sings the blues:
"What's the word I need? WHAT IS THE WORD???'s gotta rhyme here too? Aw, jeez...this whole deal is giving me the blues..."

This whole deal is a-givin' me the blues.
I just don't know what word to use,
Cause it gotta beat in time,
An' it also has to rhyme.
Oh, speak to me my loved but tight-lipped muse.

Burma Shave.

José Iriarte said...

Well bluesman, I don't like every second of it. It's not like it's not *work*. It is. And I often don't feel like I'm doing it well. But what I mean is I can't stay away for too long. Sooner or later I'll think of something and think, gee, that would be a good premise for a story. And once I do, I can't seem to help it, I'll work it and worry it like a loose tooth, until I've fleshed it out. And before I know it I've written up a few paragraphs, and come up with character names, and I start believing again that I can tell stories other people will want to hear. And then I start slogging through the actual work. None of what came before is work. It's all fun. Generating a hundred thousand words is work. Like my "real" job, sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn't. And sometimes I'm more tempted to watch baseball than to write. But in addition to wanting to write, I want to be a writer. And, as tycho said in the comments for "writer's block," it's an inertia thing. I get in a rhythm and it's easy to ignore other distractions. When the writing's not coming easy, often if I keep trying I'll eventually catch my second wind and it will *start* flowing better. All last week I struggled to write one scene. Then yesterday, bam, three more scenes came out.

Whether I'm lucky or not is a question I'll answer after I have something to show for my writing. ;-)

none said...

In my experience--which is admittedly limited--the people who do give up are rarely the people who should.

José Iriarte said...

Hehe . . . that's harsh.

I'm looking at you, Mr. Goodkind . . .