Being a Writer: Should I give up or Keep Trying?
Like other creative pursuits, we write because we have to, because we can’t help it. We enjoy it, sometimes, at other times it seems like a form of madness to dedicate hours of our precious time to producing material that might never see the light of day. If our goal is publication – particularly traditional publication (as opposed to self-publishing) it can be a particularly long road. And its a road we take alongside the challenges of our own lives; maintaining relationships, holding down a job, paying bills, caring for children or other relatives, dealing with illness or other setbacks. When so many other things matter, it can be difficult to justify to ourselves, and possibly others, the time and dedication necessary to produce a novel or other works.
For a variety of reasons it’s been a very difficult few years and when energy is low, deciding whether it’s right to spend that precious energy and a huge proportion of time on a pursuit that often makes you question yourself is an important consideration. Like so many writers I have wailed and moaned that the writing is not going well, or should I even bother. This is especially relevant on my current project which is a monster of a thing (now at 140,000 words, woohoo!) requiring intense dedication.
Society operates on consensus, on a shared set of expectations, roles and actions. We come up against those parameters as we go through life and revolutions and society changes happen when there is enough of a groundswell against a particular idea or expectation. Personally I had to change my expectations when one of my children could not face school or do state exams for two years. In a society where getting an education and doing the Leaving is everything, I’m now open to other routes and possibilities. We’re aware of how views of ‘unmarried mothers’ led to a level of acceptance at one time of what we now see as horrific incarceration and mistreatment. We still live in a world where both men and women are held captive by the received wisdom that paid employment trumps everything, that caring roles have no value, that work-life balance is a soft option. Yet as writers, still aspiring to be published we spend long lengths of time creating content that may never have a monetary value. We are stepping outside society’s conventional value system that gives certain work value and other work no value at all. So, in a way, society deems us mad to show such dedication in the face of possible failure and lack of material gain.
There are many reasons to give up
Lack of time
Conflict with other areas of life
The fickle and difficult publishing industry
Lack of feedback from publishers and agents
Not knowing if you’re any good
Like the Scrodinger’s Cat experiment these reasons are valid and not valid all at once. It’s for you to decide in your circumstances if any of them are dealbreakers. Let’s look at some of them.
Lack of Time, finances, Conflict with other areas of life
Be realistic about the confines of your own life but try to work around them if writing gives you something back. Financially you might not be able to spend as long as you’d like on it. Donal Ryan has some very successful books but recently wrote how he can’t afford to be a full time writer. Since then he got a position as lecturer in creative writing at UL. You may not be able to write a long novel but short stuff is more in vogue now anyhow. See what hours are available to you, get up early or stay up late. Negotiate with loved ones on how you (and they) can pursue things that mean a lot to them alongside what has to be done.It is hard to juggle but energy comes back to you if you do what you love. But writing might not be your only love. Only you can decide if a life of travel, family, gardening, windsurfing or whatever is rich enough without the writing, and it may be. All things considered you might be happy just to dabble or to take a break for a while, or forever, depending on your priorities.
Publishing Industry, lack of feedback, rejection, not knowing if you’re any good
It’s a well known psychological phenomenon that people attribute their own success to hard work and that of others to luck. The truth is that getting published is a combination of talent, timing, luck and sometimes connections. At any moment in time its a function of what society/the publishing industry/readers deem to have value. There was a time when books were mainly read by men and being a female author was a disadvantage – some women used a pen name. With the rise of book club books and women’s crime, many men now feel in certain genres feel that it’s a challenge to be taken seriously. On the literary side books by men are reviewed more often than those by women.
Ray Bradbury used to pay per hour to use a typewriter in his local library to write his books, so he had to write fast. Now most people have access to a computer and there are so many more people writing books. Due to the volume of submissions, writers often don’t hear back at all when submitting to publishers and agents. It’s always a pleasure to at the very least be acknowledged by organisations with a reply system in place. Yes, you are competing in an oversaturated market, you might never succeed. And the sales team always has a say in the final decision whether or not to take on a book. We are back to the cynical world of capitalism and market share. A first novel needs to make a splash or have the potential to do so. But following the vagaries of the market isn’t art! What to do?
Write the book you want to write but have an eye on what goes in the modern day. What kind of language is favoured, what sort of themes stand out, what are the concerns of the reader? Usually you have several ideas, follow one that hasn’t been done to death, be yourself, totally and say things utterly new. It’s a good start.
Are you any good? You might love to do this writing lark but have you got the talent? Is it worth pushing on in a difficult industry?
It’s impossible for you to answer this in a vacuum. Rejection, as we know, is not necessarily an indication of lack of talent or a poor product, ask Donal Ryan or, famously, JK Rowling. Send out shorter fiction to lit mags and competitions on a regular basis, send out novels and consider any encouragement from publishers or agents (even if ultimately rejected) as a sure sign to keep trying. Join a writer’s group and do courses, particularly highly regarded ones. These will give you specific guidelines as to how your fiction can reach its potential.
Choose your level
Even if you decide that you are ‘quite talented’ with the potential of being ‘very talented’, that you have a certain amount of time and that you love to write, given the considerations of your life, your situation, health etc, you will have to choose the level at which you are happy to pursue a life of writing.
Do you want to keep aiming for traditional publishing? Do you feel that time is running out or that you might be better off financially with self-publishing? Are you happy to dabble in short pieces, meeting your local writer’s group once a week? Do you want to write poetry for yourself and family or do you want to aim for a Booker prize? Each of these choices may be relevant at different times and its always important to review your choices on a regular basis, orienting yourself to what is possible in your current circumstances.
The modern argument is that we can all succeed, if we only try. Trying improves our chances but does not always result in the level of success to which we aspire. Writing is an art but we need to have a practical eye to raise our chances, we need to work hard but we also need to consider whether we can be happy with our pursuit or without it putting this writing endeavour in the wider context of our lives.
Alison Wells runs the Random Acts of Optimism blog and lives in Bray, Co. Wicklow with her husband and four children. Her short fiction been published in many magazines and online and print anthologies and she has been featured on Sunday Miscellany. Shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award, Bridport and Fish Prize's she has just completed a themed short story collection Random Acts of Optimism and a literary novel The Book of Remembered Possibilities. To read Alison's full blog, visit Head Above Water. Find out in her Random Acts of Optimism how she manages to juggle writing, children and life.