When is it time to give up?

I ask because in the last two years I’ve encountered three writers at some stage of giving up: one who already had, one who was going to quit as soon as she finished the project she was working on, and another who seemed to have decided right then: done!

Each of these writers, at the time of their entrance to Hughes’ barren field of dead dreams, was somewhere around forty years old.

Yesterday, I happened upon a relationship advice website (never mind how I got there) started by a man who, he writes on his “about” page, used to be a screenwriter, but after being ignored by former workshop colleague Matt Damon and having little luck, otherwise, he “didn’t want to be that 40-year-old guy trying to sell a screenplay.” So he moved on to relationship advice.

He’s still writing–the website offers advice by way of blog entries–so he hasn’t completely quit, but as someone who’s written news articles, feature stories, and fiction, I’m pretty sure writing relationship advice would be nothing at all like making up and shaping an original story.

013When deciding to give up creative pursuits, how often is it the death of interest and how often is it an acceptance of failure?

Because, obviously, people fail. Even if they try really, really, really hard, are smart and attractive, and sparkle like a Katy Perry firework. Not everyone can succeed. Just the way it is.

Is it cowardly, weak, to give up if the assumption is continued failure?

Or is it rational? Courageous? Hard common sense?

I’ve been thinking about the quitting thing, lately (in a casual, “huh” way). It generates a lot of questions.

  • What does one do when one quits?
  • Why does wanting to quit seem to happen to people at 40-ish? A 102-year-old woman just danced in the White House–surely 40-ish can’t be too old to hope to achieve something of creative value in the coming two or three decades of reasonably anticipated physical and mental soundness.
  • Aren’t ideas bound to get only more interesting and complex as experiences and interactions continue to add up?
  • How many years of trying equals too many? Do people who start late seem to succeed quickly because they’re freshly optimistic and therefore creatively confident rather than beaten down and insecure and tired as all hell of trying to sell?
  • What does one do when one quits?

Is it possible to wipe clean the need to succeed and return to the early, simple joys of creating, or is the failure to achieve X after Y years too powerful to overcome?

I’m interested to know if others have thought of quitting, whether they quit, why or why not, and how it all turned out.

Kristen Tsetsi is the author of The Age of the Child: a birth control ban, vigilantes on the hunt for unfit parents, and a birth explosion in one generation; parent licensing as a consequence in the next. Kristen’s 5On interview series at JaneFriedman.com offers behind-the-scenes insights into all things writing and publishing.

10 thoughts on “When is it time to give up?

  1. So….this is something I’ve been writing about over the last 2 years. I used to say, I don’t want to be that 40 year old still playing with my garage band…and yet, here I am. You know a lot about my whole writer-journey thing so I won’t bore you with it. Here is where I’m at with it all: I am learning to give no f@$ks about the artificial boundaries I’ve put up in my head. regarding time and age. The operative word is “learning”. I haven’t given up…but I have stopped racing towards the finish line…mainly because it really doesn’t exist.

  2. I might be the one who’s quitting after their current WIP is finished. My reasons have nothing to do with failure though. I’ve got a bunch of stuff published, so to me, I consider that a personal creative success. Maybe it’s because I don’t measure success with money or fame, so success and failure only really mean something to me in the “did it” or “did not do it” sense. I wanted to write and publish a story I had in my head, then another, and another, and some more. Did all that 5 times. Then I wanted to experiment with Flash fiction. Had a couple hundred stories published resulting in 2 collections. Ok, did that too. I like to finish what I start, so I have one last story to finish and then I’m done. Why?

    As far as I can tell, I exceeded my original goals. I did what I set out to do; I was satisfied with the result; and so that means success in my book. Now I’m just bored, and I want to move on creatively. Something totally different. Something new.

    I love writing, but when I do the same thing for any length of time, it feels like I’m stagnating creatively. Probably why all my books are in completely different genres. 🙂

      • Though I did forget to mention that I’m 50. That said, there are so many other creative and non-creative things I want to do that I don’t want to be sitting inside writing for my last 20 or so years, if I get that many. I’ve already devoted enough of my time to this one thing. I’m not a “one thing” girl. Never have been.

        So I don’t think it’s a 40ish thing at all. I think for some people it’s just a reevaluation of time and what you want to do with it. And that type of priority shift can happen at any age. Some people don’t even start writing seriously until they are 60ish, retired, and have the time.

  3. Chris, I opened this the minute it popped into my inbox because I watch for your writing now. I’ve read “Pretty Much True” and hope to talk about it, among other things, one of these days. I have a lot to say on the subject of quitting, restarting and getting a later-than-average start in the publishing part of writing. I’ll take a day and then try to set it down in a way that is coherent. For now, I will share this: for twenty three years I wrote on the fringes of the rest of my life and when I finally set down to be completely dedicated to it, I was past forty. I am now significantly past that (although not quite as old as the 102-year-old who danced with the Obama’s). My debut (a strange term for a woman of a certain age) novel was launched in February. I have no idea where it will lead. I’m okay with that. The question I asked myself often during all the years that passed between the moment I threw myself into the writing and when I sold the novel was the one you ask here: what does one do when one quits? If there is an advantage to have worked all those years doing things other than writing, is lies in the peace I can make now with making it my full focus. More on this to come. You’ve asked some thoughtful questions here.

    • I’m really looking forward to reading what more you’ll say about your writing experience. Very interested! In part in how it felt to be writing at the edges all the time, whether it was freeing, frustrating (to not devote full time to it), or both, and what your thoughts were as you were doing it (did you enjoy it for enjoyment’s sake? Did you have fantasies? etc.).

      And, it’s taken me far too long, but I ordered CASUALTIES. I’m immediately attracted to a narrator who buys, rather than bakes, a birthday lasagna.

      • Deep breath. Okay. This is long. I’m not sure it will all fit here but I’ll try. You can see you’ve hit a bit of a nerve!

        For many years my jobs involved writing. I was a reporter/journalist right out of college. Later, I worked in PR and then, after getting and MBA, I worked in the pharmaceutical industry where the ability to write helped me enormously. All of those jobs used the same brain cells and muscles, time and energy I needed to write the fiction and essays that I always believed I was supposed to be writing. I was also a single mother from the age of 18 on. So it was frustrating to try to do this but also, in a strange way, safe. It was my built-in excuse for not making more progress when in fact the fear of failure was the thing that was killing me. I sensed it was true then but had trouble facing it head on. I did write things. I did submit them. There were moments when I was writing that I felt fully engaged in the work I’ve always wanted to do and was meant to do and then I would read it and it would be shit.

        I submitted and was rejected but these submissions were few and far between. I journaled like crazy. I did harbor the thought that when my son was grown and my job was somehow more manageable I would be writing more. I had no writing community during this period and no idea about how to get one. I felt myself getting older and the idea of MFAs — which had emerged as something that could help — seemed and, in fact were, out of reach financially. So, in answer to your last question — how it felt to be writing at the edges — it was frustrating salted with moments of freedom and enthusiasm – enough not to give up entirely. Every January first I made a new plan for the writing and kind of crab-stepped my way towards it. One of the reasons I didn’t give up, I think, was that I hadn’t failed yet because I hadn’t given myself entirely to the thing to see if I could do it or not.

        I do think it would be easier to write on the fringes of a job that exercised different parts of the brain and body and didn’t have that element of “homework.” Every job I had spilled over into nights, weekends, off-hours. When I waitressed briefly, in my younger days, I loved it. I loved working hard, getting all that stimulation and fodder for writing, and then just leaving the work behind and having a whole chunk of time to do something else. This didn’t last very long.

        I had a rich fantasy life always — and many fantasies involved the writing life I hoped I would someday have.

        Flash forward to age 46 when my husband and I moved to San Diego, and I began to work out of my house. As I mentioned to a group of writers recently, something happens when you realize you’ve lived over half your life and there remains something you have to do. It was kind of a now or never deal and yes, my son was long out of the house by then (had him young and he flew the coop young — we are both precocious in this way I guess). I just went after the writing like it was a job. Even though it was still on the fringes of another job, the fringes were wider. I hooked up with a writing community through UCSD and other places. I started what would become the novel I finished. The novel itself was really my MFA. It took over ten years. I wrote other things during this time and for the first seven years or so, I worked also at my consulting gig. Stopping the consulting allowed me to finish the book.

        Finishing was success. Selling it was a boost. I would have found a way to publish it or write another one that would sell. I know this know. So in answer to one of your excellent questions, being older when I came to the serious part of my writing life did help. I had somehow gained confidence from all those years of working and from surviving failures that came with marriage, work, life in general. I understood business and even though I really wanted to sell my book, I completely understood how much of that was not up to me. It hurt but I didn’t take it as personally plus I knew there might be more options. I also knew how to communicate more effectively with agents, editors and others because I drew on my business background to understand their side of things.

        I do get why decisions like quitting or staying might raise their pointed heads around forty — but I think that this may also have to do with how a writer has spent her life. If she has always known she was a writer and spent all her waking hours from the time she was twenty to forty trying to do it, then it is a natural time to step back and take a breath. It was around forty — a bit earlier actually — that the urge to get on with my real life took hold with a tighter grip. There is a sense that with some of the life experience boxes checked off (certain jobs, certain relationships, parenthood perhaps) it is possible to get to the next ones.

        Being older sharpens my focus. It has taken me way too long to understand how precious the time is and how easy it is to lose it. I will never write all the things that are crowding into my head. But the critical question that you ask in your blog post is one that my closest writing friend and I ask each other a lot: what would we do with this precious time if we weren’t writing? So far, a compelling alternative has not presented itself. On top of that, it feels shitty to quit. I hate it. A bad day of trying feels better than a day of not trying at all. There isn’t anything else right now I would rather use that time for. And this time I am talking about still comes when time is divided between the work of writing and the family and other commitments that somehow seem to increase with age. Again, the time is precious. The evil thoughts that plague me now, on my bad days, have to do with running out of time, being an older writer in an ever swelling sea of young writers who have MFAs and who bring entire futures to their work. My own ideas about what kind of writer I am or should be are not helpful either (see response below about success).

        Quickly, I’d like to address a couple of the other great questions you raised in your post:

        CJ: Aren’t ideas bound to get only more interesting and complex as experiences and interactions continue to add up?

        ME: Yes. This has definitely been my experience. No matter how “big” a life one has, the more of it there is, the more material there is. Especially if you are a writer. It can be overwhelming but it is a good problem to have.

        CJ: How many years of trying equals too many?

        ME: I suspect this is different for each individual.

        CJ: Do people who start late seem to succeed quickly because they’re freshly optimistic and therefore creatively confident rather than beaten down and insecure and tired as all hell of trying to sell?

        ME: There is nothing more draining than rejection and then, even if there is a book, trying to get it into readers’ hands when really the big part of the job is to make the book in the first place. I think whenever anyone is new to this aspect, they bring more energy. I think age is less a factor than how many years a writer has been working one the selling of her work.

        CJ: Is it possible to wipe clean the need to succeed and return to the early, simple joys of creating, or is the failure to achieve X after Y years too powerful to overcome?
        ME: Again, this is individual. However, this is where the experience and years may come in handy. At some point we learn that the early joys of creating are lying there always for us to find them. Success — that picture we’ve painted for ourselves and measure ourselves against — that is the thing that may have to be redefined and it is easier to do this when we are wiser, older, more forgiving of ourselves. I still struggle with that image I’ve painted for myself. I’ve learned that even a little progress towards it only creates the desire for more of this, more of that. It’s only when I sit down and stop thinking about it and just write stuff down again that it feels better. If we are able to let that crap go, the simple joys are right there. I feel it every time I sit down now.

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