The longer you are in the writing game without much relative success—the definition of which is a philosophical Pandora’s box I will leave closed for now—the harder it wears on your confidence. Recently, I have seen several shows that talk about wasted talent or not living up to your potential, and I cannot help but identify with the theme.
Having completed my MFA eleven years ago, published my first novel six years ago, abandoned my second novel started fourteen years ago, and wondering whether I am creative spent, there are good arguments for giving up. The further I age from my creative peak, it feels more difficult to regain that sensation.
Screenwriter Terry Rossio published an article in 1998 called “Throw in the Towel.” The column is not so much about when to cease your writerly ambitions, but that you should give up right away:
Just do it. Now. Think of how good it will feel. Be decisive. Free yourself, this instant, from the fever dream, from the slow agony of your doomed-from-the-start efforts. A clean break. Then you can go out into the world and start living a real life. Travel a little, get a job at something you can actually do, something that takes you out into the sunlight, something that lets you meet people, be a part of something real. The end of the paragraph is coming up, and I’m telling you, you should do it RIGHT NOW—and I bet, deep in your heart, you already know the reason why. One simple and overwhelmingly incontrovertible truth. BECAUSE YOUR LIFE WILL BE BETTER FOR IT.
If you think Rossio’s tone is tongue-in-cheek, it’s not. Not entirely, anyway.
The article is brutal because it preys upon our worst fears of having nothing but mediocre ideas, being falsely told that our work is good to spare our feelings, and in the case of screenwriters, being too old to work in this young person’s game.
Several years ago, my productivity took a blow when I cut my hand and found myself physically unable to write. I fell out of the writing groove. To compound the issue, holiday distractions demanded my attention. So, I decided to enjoy my break by spending time with family and friends. When it came time to get back to work, a strange thought materialized:
What if I chose to stop writing?
What if is a writer’s favorite game. Stories are created and pushed to their limits by the simple sentence: “What if this happened instead of that?” But never before had I asked the ultimate what if question.
My shock derived from the wording. I didn’t ask, “What if I never wrote again?” The question was: “What if I chose to stop?”
This query was on par with wondering, “What if I’m not human?” or, “What if I’m not alive?” As a philosophy major, we explored all sorts of crazy scenarios, but these investigations always involved an element of sport. Questioning my identity as a writer was not a game. Even more astounding was the bit of happiness the idea wrought.
I had to look deeper.
Since the easiest action is not to write, was quitting the ultimate form of procrastination? Writers avoid their work all the time. How else do the dishes get cleaned? Of course, procrastination implies the deed will occur at a later date. I was talking about preventing that date from ever arriving.
I had been practicing my craft for almost fifteen years at that point. This type of evaluation could change my self.
Many creatives have told me over the years that if there is anything else in life you enjoy doing, do that. Only become a professional artist if there is nothing else you could possibly imagine working toward. So I started thinking about other careers I could enjoy.
And that was the key.
Capability was not the issue. Happiness was.
I could perform many jobs well; yet I could never operate at my best without loving the work.
Writing is the only trade in which I have felt that rush of ecstasy. Granted, the lows can be really low, but no high is better. Plus, by this time of my investigation, I had become irritable from not putting words on the page, so that was a pretty good indication of my next move.
Professional writing is an all-or-nothing decision. People certainly can write from time to time if that makes them happy. They have my blessing. The difference between a hobby and a vocation when it comes to the craft is that you either want it or you don’t. I want it. I am just glad I went through the motions of questioning the core of that desire since I have emerged more confident than ever.
Want some examples?
I wrote a screenplay that didn’t win a contest; so I wrote a better one.
I wrote a poor novel draft, which laid the ground work for a great revision.
Agents told me that my first novel, while a good idea, would be difficult to market. But that book now exists for people to read. And strangers have told me how much they enjoyed it.
Should I quit?
I know I can’t. This craft is what I was meant to do.
Only with that understanding I could read Rossio’s verbal onslaught, acknowledge the truth in his logic, and not blink as I stared down the barrel of his gun. As fellow scribe Crain Mazin nicely summarized Rossio’s conclusion: “Well, if you can ignore all that, then maybe you have a chance.”
This article is based on three originally published in January and March 2012.