When to Throw in the Towel – an old timer’s story

If you scroll down a little, you will see that Renee asked this question on Tuesday. As I started typing my reply, it got longer and longer. So I turned it into today’s post. :)

I was in my early 20′s when I started seriously thinking I’d made a mistake with the writing thing. I already had my degree in creative writing, and slaved away at the same book I had worked on all through jr. high, high school, and college, and still didn’t show a lot of improvement. This triggered insecurity, which triggered writer’s block, setting off a vicious cycle full of teeth. I played so many games with writer’s block.

There is a class of writer who spends more time talking about writing – about their ideas and techniques and struggles – than they actually spend in front of a keyboard. I prided myself that I wasn’t one of them because I didn’t do it at the coffee houses the way most of what Mr. Al calls “posers” do. But I enjoyed hanging out with writers a lot more than the actual writing. Talking about ideas is fun! Making them real… not so fun. Most of the time I found writing excruciating. If I stuck with it, it was through sheer cussedness.

After a while, even cussedness won’t get you through. I started to think of myself as a looser. I stopped wanting to talk about it with anyone. I let my writing efforts fall lax for months at a time. I still thought of myself as a writer, but not in a good way. I started thinking I shouldn’t keep wasting my time.

Except for a little poetry, I set it aside. I wasn’t really a writer anyway.

I attended a lot of Science Fiction conventions back then. When I went to my first I had hoped to find a way to get my work in front of an editor. Then I went because they were fun. At one of these, I took in a panel in which a newly published writer admitted that she was in her early 40′s. She pointed out that early 40′s was a very common age in which to become published for the first time.

I was thrilled! I still had several years to go. What a relief. I joined a SF writer’s group that was serious about publication and gave it my pathetic all.

Five years later, I had a very small stack of rejections – mostly for short stories – and still couldn’t finish the flipping book. The writer’s group was history. I spent less and less time actually writing.

It was time to throw in the towel.

And I did. I was busy being a telemarketer and a Deadhead anyway. What did I need writing for? Except the reason I was a telemarketer was to leave room in my mornings for writing, and Deadheading wasn’t nearly as interesting if I didn’t need to take mental notes for things to write about.

Thus my second attempt to quit came and went.

By the next time my last attempt rolled around, I had gotten a degree in accounting and was putting in a lot of overtime in this new field. I didn’t have time for nonsense anymore. I announced to myself and anyone unwise enough to ask that I had quit.

Ideas kept popping into my head. Ideas are so much fun. It’s such a waste not to write them down. But there was no point in writing any of it down because I wasn’t a writer anymore. Dialog, imagery, a really great turn of phrase? Ignore it all because it had nothing to do with accounting and I was no longer a writer.

For two years the muse attacked me and I resisted. For two years my world became more and more washed out and meaningless, even as it should have become more vital and interesting.

Then a sly thought got me. I didn’t have to do this for publication. Writing could be a mere hobby. I could write entirely for myself with no intention of sharing a single word with anyone.


Well, if that was the case, the first thing I had to do was give the ever-lasting non-book a decent burial. It wasn’t fun to work on. Why make a hobby of it? Into the file-with-no-handles it went.

I started a new book (still unfinished). I had great characters, wild ideas, and so much fun writing! Except it wasn’t all fun. Sometimes I struggled with word choices because I wasn’t really sure who I was writing to. Suddenly, the idea of having someone read it appealed to me. So, it could be a hobby and I could still share it, right? I still wasn’t a writer. It was safe to do this. Great! I showed some of it to Mr. Al, who mmm-hmmmed appreciatively.

If one person liked it, maybe more would? Who could I share it with? Who would want to read it? And it was taking so much work! Shouldn’t this kind of effort pay off a bit more? I mean, as soon as I got the book done, why not send it to a publisher? It could be like playing the lottery. I might actually get published!

Bam! Right back where I started. I had turned into a writer again.

I gave it a few more pokes, but it was pretty obvious this pattern would repeat itself as many times as I tried to quit.

Suddenly it didn’t matter if I ever succeeded as a writer. It didn’t matter if I totally sucked. This was my calling. I could only deny it at my peril. I might as well give it all I’ve got.

That was when I quit trying to quit.

It’s been 34 years now since I started my first book, and all I officially have to show for it is a short ebook. But I don’t care. I will keep writing, keep submitting, and keep looking for an audience because apparently that’s how I’m built.

Should you quit? Only if you can.

ps. Mr. Al writes too. He said, “I quit all the time. Then a week later I start again.”

12 Comment(s)

  1. I can’t. No matter what happens on this journey . . . putting words and ideas and characters and stories on the page . . . that’s who I am.

    I’m a writer. :)

    Brynna | Feb 18, 2010 | Reply

  2. Writers aren’t made they are born with the DNA.

    terri | Feb 18, 2010 | Reply

  3. I think, early on, I might have been able to choose something else.

    Alice | Feb 18, 2010 | Reply

  4. I love the Mr. Al comment. That sounds like me all over: “I quit all the time. Then I start it up again a week later.”

    Hellion | Feb 18, 2010 | Reply

  5. I learned early on that writing is (like Terri said) in my DNA, but then again I only just discovered that I was a writer a little over 3 years ago. When I broke down and looked out of the closet to confess my secret, my mother said, “It’s about time.” She had known something that I hadn’t. Go figure.

    Renee | Feb 18, 2010 | Reply

  6. I’m not sure writing is in my DNA, but I know I’ve loved doing it for as long as I can remember. It just never occured to me to make any money at it. And for years, I didn’t write a thing except the occassional entry in a journal. And then a news story or commercial for work.

    But a little over three years ago, I got hooked. Started out small, 500 word drabbles. Then got bigger. Technically, I’ve still never finished a full-length MS. But I’m trying, and that’s really all that matters for now.

    Thanks for the great story and insight, Alice. Sometimes what’s in front of our noses is the hardest thing to see.

    Terrio | Feb 18, 2010 | Reply

  7. I just love the kick I get when I’m in the zone and the words start flowing. I love seeing the story coming to life on the page. Not sure about the DNA connection, I’m addicted though. :)

    Anastasia St. James | Feb 18, 2010 | Reply

  8. It’s in my DNA and like Renee, my family knew, it was just me who didn’t. Not until three years ago. Like Terrio, like Renee, like Ana, like many of you, I found the Avon Fanlit contest and started putting stories that had always been in my head, on paper. Thank God! My head was getting crowded. :D

    I think writing is something we have to love to do, or at least need to do, because seriously the odds are against us. We don’t write to get rich, that’s for sure.

    Thanks for sharing your story, Alice. I use your quote on WRT as my profile line, now I know what’s behind it.

    Laurie Faelan | Feb 18, 2010 | Reply

  9. I’ve been doing this for as long as I’ve been able to form letters on a page. Y’all know that story . . . and if you don’t, it’s here on my bio page. :)

    Brynna | Feb 18, 2010 | Reply

  10. If the ideas won’t leave you alone then it’s unlikely that you’ll quit. Many writers do what they do simply because of the pleasure they derive from it.

    Joy | Feb 24, 2010 | Reply

  11. Alice, this phrase seemed to hit a note with me. “For two years the muse attacked me and I resisted. For two years my world became more and more washed out and meaningless, even as it should have become more vital and interesting.” I think that pretty much sums up where I’m at right now. I want to jump back on that wagon, but there’s so many other life problems banging at the door that I don’t even have the heart to try. But like you, I know it’s just a phase and I’ll put pen back to paper soon.

    Ashley | Feb 27, 2010 | Reply

  12. Ashley, I think you are struggling with writer’s block much the same way I did. I strongly recommend that you NOT take it so seriously. Write for the fun of it. DON’T write on your WIP, because that can take the fun out too fast. Instead, set up a file for playing around in and every day toss in whatever is on the top of your mind. If it turns out to belong in the WIP, you can always transfer it later. Go ahead and do it clandestinely – time stolen from the family. That can make it more fun, like swiping a piece of cake when no one is looking. Give it a try and let me know what you think.

    Alice Audrey | Mar 8, 2010 | Reply

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