Some writers are great. Others are good. While every writer dreams of becoming the next PEN/Faulkner winner, the recipient of the Pulitzer or the focus of NPR podcasts (or all of the above) we need to face the facts. Many writers can make a living with the business of writing. Only few writers make a living actually writing creative material, be that a novel or a short story collection or memoir.
At a certain point, we realize what every writer realizes: we might not make it.
We can deny it and refute it but it doesn’t change the fact. There is space at the top for everyone, but not everyone makes it to the top.
Being an artist of any kind is extremely expensive. We pay in sweat, tears and elective poverty. We drive ourselves insane, expose ourselves to rejection and ridicule, and spend our days locked in a room with imaginary characters, away from the rest of the world. We sacrifice so much that we come to a point when we have to run a cost-benefit analysis. With what we are paying, we have to ask: will we get what we want?
Do you want to be responsible?
Hopefully, yes. And that’s what we’ll focus on today. How can we be responsible people who also happen to have an enormous dream?
First, let’s figure out what your success is.
Is it writing a book for friends and family to read?
Is it becoming a NY Times Bestseller?
Is it having an e-book out on Amazon?
Is it becoming a household name?
Depending on what your “success” is, your workload differs—and the likelihood differs. I know several writers who have storied careers in other industries. They worked as speech therapists, lawyers and personal coaches. And they spend all their time now writing, but they have no intention of ever becoming a huge seller. They just really love to write. I also know plenty of people in their twenties who are committed to fulfilling the role of the starving artist and misunderstood genius—and they’re willing to pay for it. It all depends.
Can you pay the bills now?
Remember that writer who struck success and said he worked on his book for the last fifteen years? Yeah, he doesn’t have a name, because it’s mostly everyone who has a book at all.
There’s a reason why so many established writers are as old as they are. It takes an incredible amount of work and patience to make a book happen. Can you afford to wait that long? Can you afford the time? And are you working enough now to reach that benchmark? Or are you misspending your resources?
Here’s the thing we have to remember with writing: it takes time, and it’s something you can do while holding a day job. In fact, many established writers recommend holding a day job while working on your novel afterhours. The key, however, is to take up work that doesn’t drain your creative energy. Opt for something a little brainless, if you will, something that’s on the opposite spectrum of writing –like physical labor, customer service or even medicine. Anything that doesn’t require you to sit in front of a computer and compose sentences. This way, you still have a full battery of creative energy left when you get home from work.
What about your emotional health?
We have to be honest and know when to throw in the towel and when to keep on.
Ask yourself this:
- Do you think you’re good enough to succeed, to whatever standard of success you make?
- Are you working hard enough? Are you producing pages?
- Are you being proactive?
- Or are you deluding yourself?
- Can you really afford it?
Should you quit?
You are your own best bullshit detector. That applies not just to our creative work, but our every day lives. If you think about quitting more often than not, it’s time to think more seriously about what drives that thought.
In this situation, let’s assume you are good enough. You work hard. You put in the hours. You write quality pages on a regular basis. You get positive feedback from your writing group. Then, shelve your doubt and keep grinding, but also remember to think outward.
What does that mean?
Figure out what about writing you enjoy most.
There may be other ways to enjoy the craft of writing without having your livelihood rely on creative production.
- Maybe you are a killer line editor.
- Maybe you really understand people and their emotions. Become a therapist. Or write a self-help book.
- Maybe you’re great at plotting. Work as a consultant for other writers.
- Maybe you’re terrific at research. Become a fact checker at a larger firm.
- Become a writing teacher at the community center.
- Design literature courses.
- Teach English to ESL students.
If you can zero in on what about writing you love, you have a fair shot at making something more of it.
In short, we might not get to be a big shot writer, but that in way no excludes us from the writing world.
So if you’re thinking about quitting, maybe rather than finally throwing in the towel, it’s a matter of reallocating your resources and redefining your spot.
Just a thought worth having.