It’s easy to give up on your writing. Whether you’re working on a novel, a memoir, a short story, or an article, writing is hard. Not shoveling-horse-stalls difficult, but hard in a way that can do your head in. There are blank pages and screens to duel with every day. Words that refuse to be wrangled into decent sentences. Query letters and book proposals that never catch an editor’s eye. People who say, “Are you still writing?” or “When’s your next book coming out?”
Maybe hardest of all, there are the novels and memoirs we pour sweat into day after day, for two or five or twelve years, only to have the publishing world reject them.
Which, of course, is easy to hear as the whole world shouting, “You’re not good enough!”
“I’m giving up fiction writing for good,” I said to a good friend recently, after a particularly painful rejection letter on a novel my agent is shopping around.
“I think that’s very wise,” she said. “I mean, why shouldn’t we binge on Netflix at night like everybody else? Besides, you’ve already published lots of novels.”
“Exactly my point,” I said. Then I hung up and cried.
She’s right, of course. I have already published lots of books. Many are novels. I am also blessed in other ways, with a lovely home, thriving children, a loving husband, and satisfying paid work as a nonfiction writer. Why, then, did I feel so despondent? So what if I quit writing novels? It wasn’t like publishing any novel had made a giant difference in my life. I still drive an old car and have a mortgage. My energy would be better spent hustling up more paid nonfiction gigs.
More time went by. I collected more rejections. I reminded myself that it didn’t matter. Having your novel rejected definitely qualifies as a First World Problem, right? There are people starving or being beaten every day. The political scene has gone bonkers. The Ebola virus is breaking out again in Africa. Climate change is here to stay. I have friends grieving over dead parents. Friends who are recovering from heart attacks, strokes, and cancer. My life is a cakewalk. Certainly, there are bigger things to feel depressed about than some stupid unpublished manuscript.
And yet I was, to the point where I gave up on writing fiction. I couldn’t bear the idea of starting a new book only to fail again.
“What’s wrong?” asked another friend as we took a walk and I told her I’d been depressed.
“I’ve given up writing fiction,” I said. “It’s pointless.”
This friend very kindly did not point out how unattractive it is for a woman to whine about something this lame. Instead, she said, “Okay, but tell me something. Isn’t it making you feel worse, not to write?”
It kind of was, I had to admit.
“The thing you love doing more than anything else in the world is writing fiction,” she went on. “So aren’t you robbing yourself of joy by quitting?”
Oh yeah. Joy. “It’s not so joyful if you can’t sell what you write,” I grumbled.
She laughed. “I’m a poet, remember? Do not talk to me about money.”
A few days later, I stopped in a bookstore and, on impulse, picked up an issue of Creative Nonfiction magazine. At home, I began reading the editor’s letter, “What’s the Story?” by Lee Gutkind, and was stopped by a particular passage near the end:
That’s what writers do: we start over. For a writer, every day is a new day with a new beginning. Even if we are writing an essay or a book chapter we have been working on for days or months—or years!–we face our notebook or keyboard not really knowing what is going to happen to our work next. We may think and hope that we know, but we really don’t—at least until we are deep into the story. Even then, we are invariably surprised.
I set the magazine down and poured myself a cup of tea, pondering this “aha!” moment. Now I knew why I had been feeling so sad: because, without writing, it’s more difficult for me to start over every day and be surprised. That very morning, I started a new novel.
Sure, I hope my writing will be published, and that it will find readers. But, even if it doesn’t, I’m still in it for the surprises that lie ahead.
And the joy, too.