I think almost everyone who writes — barring a rare few — will decide at some point that they’re tired of trying. Statistically, this bears out. In any given writing program or class, only about 30% of the people will have any real success in the commercial world. Everyone else, the other 70%, will eventually lay the burden down and go do something else.
I can grok it. It’s a lot of work to build up and keep up any kind of writing momentum. It takes an almost obtuse level of stubbornness to ignore the setbacks and the roadblocks and the odds, and keep producing and sending the work out. Most writers will, at some point, decide that struggling to become a well-sold, financially lucrative professional fiction author is just too hard. Or, if they actually get to that point, they discover that staying at that level is too hard, and they will either back off, walk away, or lapse into a sparser, less consistent production pattern.
I think this is why I am so attracted to exemplars like Dave Wolverton, Kevin J. Anderson, Dean Wesley Smith, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and so forth. These writers have been through lots of turmoil and changes and ups and downs, and they’ve found a way to keep going and survive as professionals. All of them consistently sell, and all of them consistently say that they have more fun doing what they do, than anything else they’ve ever done. Even with as much work and uncertainty as there can be in the business.
I remember when I went through Basic Combat Training in 2003, our Drill Sergeants told us the first day — as we stood around in our PTs, toes on the outside line of a rectangular area dubbed the Kill Zone — that at least one third of us wouldn’t make it. One third of us would wash out. At the time I didn’t even know you could wash out, but over nine weeks I watched it happen. People got sick. People got hurt. People had discipline issues. And people simply gave up and quit.
I know I wanted to quit a few times, especially since I got very sick at the beginning and at the end of the experience. Trying to do BCT while seriously ill is its own little version of hell. I only kept going because I knew if I didn’t keep going, I would never be able to look at myself in the mirror again, and not feel like a failure. I’d never be able to look my wife in the eye, nor anyone who knew I’d joined the military, without feeling like I’d blown it. So I gutted it out, and I am sure glad I did. The military has paid off big time for me. BCT sucked, but it didn’t kill me — even though I sometimes wondered if it would.
I think writing is not all that different. Those who gut it out, become successful. Those who decide it’s not worth the trouble and the effort, move on to something else. I guess it all comes down to how much each of us wants this thing? How maniacal are we willing to get?
Jay Lake is a guy whose level of writing mania is epic to the point of being scary. I know for a fact if I’d gone through the cancer hell he’s gone through, it would have destroyed my writing, and probably just about everything else in my life too. I’d have curled up in a corner and quietly wished for the world to go away. But with rare exception, Jay kept up his production goals and made progress and kept selling, and never gave up even when the cancer was taking its toll and other things — even his relationships — began to dissolve.
I am not sure I have even half of Jay’s determination. But I admire the hell out of Jay because of his drive.
When I decided to really get invested again in my writing and make a “final push” for professional break-in, I sort of made a deal with myself that I couldn’t quit. I absolutely could not quit, for any reason. It felt a lot like the decision I had to make to gut it out with Basic Combat Training. There was no going back, only going through. And this is still how it feels. Each time something nice happens for me, I allow myself a day or so to feel elated and excited about it, but then I pull my hat back down over my eyes and re-focus. Because there is more writing to do, and it won’t do itself if I let myself get too hung up on worrying if I’ve got what it takes, will I ever really be able to make it, and so forth.
Chances are, if I keep putting my head down and driving forward, I’ll look up some day and realize, hey, I made it! And then, probably, I’ll put my hat back down over my eyes and I’ll push on some more. Because this again is what the exemplars do: they don’t rest on their laurels, they aren’t satisfied with just one successful project, and they don’t slack off. Or at least, not for very long. They put the work gloves back on, pick up the literary pick and shovel, and head back to the creative ditch to dig more stories and novels out of their own particular creative Earth. Like coal mining. The seams are down there, but you won’t ever touch them if you sit around on the surface and waste time.