I have a very close friend who slaved at the keyboard for nearly eight years, building up a compelling body of work.
Nothing was ever published though two different manuscripts sat in the hands of two major publishers.
To be honest, if she got published I’m not sure what to make of it…
The thought actually made her quite anxious because of the committment that writing demanded.
See, for her, it was a dreadful existence. She did not love the writing life.
She liked to create. But not in the confines of a small office with nobody to talk to except a laptop with a soft buzz.
Baking gourmet cupcakes in the kitchen with the girls was more her style.
But there it was: her talent at writing.
When Writing Is a Bad Thing
It constantly baffled me. Her reaction to this work time. She made it sound like a punishment.
She’d often ask: “Do you think I’m a writer? Should I keep doing this? What if I’m published?”
“Hopefully you’ll get a sweet advance and share it.”
“But do you know what that means? Do you know what that means if I get published? At the minimum a contract to write one book a year for three years.”
“And that’s a bad thing?”
“Yeah, if you don’t like to write.”
That baffled me. A writer who doesn’t like to write? Is there such a thing? It sounds like slavery.
Misguided Ideas about Who a Writer Is?
I often reminded her that her work was a clear sign that she wrote well. That she had a formidable talent for character and suspense, signs that showed writing greatness.
If I’m going to judge the quality of a writer, doesn’t it make sense to start with the actual words on the page?
She loathed the solitude that writing demanded. The absence of a human voice for long stretches of time.
She hated to close her door whether people were home or not. But at times (like when they asked for a full manuscript after seeing a proposal) she had to work long and late, often through the day.
To make matters worse it was the summer time.
Eight years is a long time to slave away at something. At what point do you quit? And is the sheer absence of a buyer for a book a closed door? Or just a closed chapter?
Those are the questions she kept asking me. And they’re questions that I ask myself now.
Our answers are much different and I think gets down to the core of our dilemma.
Writing Is Just a Career
When her last proposal and manuscript was turned down–after eight years–she threw in the towel. She was done. Maybe not forever. But for the time being.
I shrugged and told her that perhaps it wasn’t a bad idea. She probably needed some distance from writing. Some space to re-evaluate and stockpile life experiences.
It got me thinking.
Writing can be like a career. Some make it a life-long one. Others abandon it at the first sign of greener pastures.
Harper Lee wrote only one book. Nobody disputes her gift.
Ernest K. Gann complained of long bouts of writer’s block. His production dwarfs Harpers.
Some writers left decades of fallow years in between their first and second books. But that doesn’t mean they cease to be people. Or to live lives.
But why the scarcity in production for some writers and the prolific mud-slinging among others? The reasons are legion.
Why Writers Stop Writing
Salinger wanted out of the spotlight. But nobody doubts he still wrote. He just didn’t publish any more.
The film Capote suggests the author bailed on writing due to guilt over his back-stabbing behaviour towards the murderers Smith and Hickock.
Herman Melville succumbed to depression after he published his magnum opus Moby Dick, which was a flaming commercial disaster. That’s 46 years of non-productivity.
Malcolm Lowry squandered his talent on alcohol. Samuel Coleridge on opium.
Arthur Rimbaud wrote the rule book on poetry, ate up the adulation and kicked this creative habit to the curve once he could find adventure somewhere else.
Arundhati Roy won the Booker Prize with The God of Small Things. It was her first and only novel. She obviously found better things to do than writing, like being an activist in India.
Writing does demand a lot from people. The solitude can be overbearing. The self-criticism relentless. And the sheer lack of feedback for long stretches of time when writing something like a novel means you have little indication of knowing where you are going…
Or if anyone will actually follow you.
No wonder some throw their hat into the ring only to retrieve it when they are done. However they define “done.”
To others, however, the rewards of writing outweigh the demands. So they make a life of it.
It has become increasingly clear to me over these last 10 years, in which I have written more regularly than before, that the more I write the worse I become. More self-absorbed, less sensitive to the needs of others, less flexible, more determined to say what I have to say, when I want and how I want, if I could only be left alone to figure it out.
In the end, solitude is not a dismal schoolmaster to some writers. It’s the companion with whom they carry a cool love affair with their entire life.
Ideas are their playmates. Not people. Creation their preferred mode of function. Not conversation.
This personality type naturally prefers the long stretches of time in quiet contemplation. The relentless hunkering over a laptop. The methodical mowing down of book after book.
It’s the way they choose to spend their life.
So What about You?
Do you enjoy the demands of writing? The solitude, contemplation and reading over people, conversation and the social life? Or is it the other way around for you? Let me know in the comments.